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Clear, hold, build: the evolution of counterinsurgency (COIN)

for the British Army in Afghanistan, 2001-2014


Lucas Colley
Department of International Politics
MA War Studies (Specialist)
Dissertation
25 September 2015

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Abstract:
The British Army has amassed a wealth of operational experience in two theatres of
conflict in the last fourteen years. In many ways, the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan have
highlighted the strategic shortcomings of those in charge, and yet highlighted the enduring
tactical excellence of those charged with fighting the battles. In terms of organisation and
equipment, the British Army has modernised itself, and introduced new tactics, techniques
and procedures to deal with the reality of the contemporary operating environment. This
work seeks to track the British Armys developments in counterinsurgency doctrine and
practice from the conflict in Afghanistan up to the end of its offensive operations in 2014,
and also the ways in which its orientation towards conventional war-fighting and the
corporate philosophy therein does not lend itself well to waging counterinsurgency
successfully as a matter of routine. This work also seeks to highlight how the campaign in
Afghanistan has been plagued by the lack of a coherent strategy, and the implications both
for the campaign itself and for future military operations.

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Contents:
Acknowledgements
Research methodology and literature
Appendix 1: Casualties by year
Appendix 2: Map of Afghanistan

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p.5
p.6
p.7

Preface

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Chapters:
1. Counterinsurgency fundamentals (p.12)
2. Antecedents: the British way in warfare, the Manoeuvrist Approach and modern
military culture (p.19)
1. The British way of battle
2. The concept of manoeuvre
3. Modern military culture
4. Key points
3. Light footprint: Initial stages of the Afghanistan campaign, 2001-2006 (p.29)
1. Afghan society
2. Operation Enduring Freedom
3. Key points
4. Bogged down: the start of Operation HERRICK 4, platoon houses and the
operational emphasis, 2006-2009 (p.36)
1. The deployment to Helmand, 2006
2. Manpower issues and a conventional approach
3. Problems with the Afghan National Security Forces
4. Key points
5. Clear, hold, build: the revival of COIN, changes in tactics and the arrival of the US
Marine Corps in Helmand, 2009-2014 (p.46)
1. A dearth of campaign planning
2. Changing insurgent tactics and the British response
3. Clear-hold-build
4. Key points
6. Fight smarter, not harder: the future for COIN, 2014+ (p.56)
1. The future for Afghanistan
2. Summary of the campaign
3. The need for adaptability in COIN
4. The future for COIN
Conclusion (p.63)
Bibliography (p.66)
Declaration (p.76)

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Acknowledgements
I am grateful to all the British officers and soldiers who contributed their own experiences
of their deployments to Afghanistan, without whose insight this work would be significantly
poorer. Many spoke to me personally about what they did and achieved on operations, but
also helped to point me in the right direction with regard to sources. They wish to remain
anonymous, but they know who they are.
However I do wish to openly thank Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, Head of the
Department for War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, for giving me the time
to interview him at the Academy. He has operational experience as a former Australian
Army intelligence officer, and has accumulated over two years in Afghanistan as an
embedded military historian. His extensive knowledge and experience of
counterinsurgency and detailed inside view on the conduct of the campaign at the higher
formation level has been most valuable in interpreting the strategic approach of UK forces
in Afghanistan.
Statistics:
Casualty tables for Operation ENDURING FREEDOM: http://www.iCasualties.org
(Michael White).
Images:
Cover photo: A British soldier from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force scans the horizon
with his Light Machine Gun in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Photo by Captain Mau Gris, British Army Combat Camera Team, published online at:
https://britisharmy.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/amoc-cct-2013-155-802.jpg (14 June
2013).
Map of Afghanistan: Defence Geographic Centre, 2008.

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Research methodology and literature


This work was derived largely from standard secondary sources, email conversations with
several soldiers and officers, forum discussion with the same, and recorded interviews.
I have been inspired largely by the works of Frank Ledwidge and Hew Strachan, who have
gone to great lengths to illustrate the lack of strategic vision and coherent campaign
planning by British forces and their allies in Afghanistan; they point to how the operational
methods of counterinsurgency, no matter how effective, do not fill the gaps created by poor
planning and inconsistent strategy. Frank Ledwidge points out how the military culture of
the British Army, insular and traditionalist, has held it back from truly embracing and
applying COIN doctrine, certainly early on in the campaign, when a conventional warfighting mentality defined the approach to the early years of Operation HERRICK. James
Fergusson, in his work A Million Bullets, corroborates this viewpoint.
It also draws on the views of many classic and new-era COIN advocates, including David
Galula, David Kilcullen and John Nagl, all with extensive operational experience of both
conventional and COIN operations over the last fifty years. Nagl in particular agrees that
armies are unwieldy and culturally unsuited to the subtle requirements of COIN, and a
cultural shift in training and education is required to prosecute it successfully. COIN began
a serious revival in US military thinking around 2006, when a new batch of highly
educated, very senior officers and civilian aides published FM 3-24, otherwise known as
the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which has been given particular credit for
transforming the operational effectiveness of US forces in Iraq. FM 3-24 is considered
something of a modern classic for COIN revivalists, and a framework that is useful for any
COIN campaign provided they are not rigidly applied; they are guidelines, not a formulaic
template for success.
I also conducted two recorded interviews, one with a senior officer at the Defence
Academy of the United Kingdom, and another with the current head of the War Studies
Department, Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Audio
files and transcripts are available on request.
An alternative, strictly non-academic, but highly insightful source has been the Army
Rumour Service bulletin board. The author started a thread in the Afghanistan section to
canvass opinions and advice from forum posters, many of whom have extensive
operational experience in multiple theatres. They have been very helpful in providing their
points of view on the campaign, shedding light on their experiences and signposting me to
other resources. In fact, they were kind enough to feature my topic on their website's front
page. The thread can be located here: http://www.arrse.co.uk/community/threads/help-fora-masters-dissertation-coin-tactics-conventional-philosophy-afghanistan-20012014.242344/

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Appendix 1: Casualties by year


Coalition Military Fatalities By Year
Year
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
Total

US

UK Other

12
0
49
3
48
0
52
1
99
1
98
39
117 42
155 51
317 108
499 103
418 46
310 44
127
9
55
6
1
0
2357 453

0
18
10
7
31
54
73
89
96
109
102
48
25
14
1
677

Total
12
70
58
60
131
191
232
295
521
711
566
402
161
75
2
3487

Source: http://www.icasualties.org/oef

IED Fatalities
Period
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015

IED Total
0
4
3
12
20
41
78
152
275
368
252
132
52
12
0

4
25
26
27
73
130
184
263
451
630
492
312
118
47
2

Pct
0.00
16.00
11.54
44.44
27.40
31.54
42.39
57.79
60.98
58.41
51.22
42.31
44.07
25.53
0

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Appendix 2: Map of Afghanistan

Preface
War in the twentieth century was characterised largely by the clash of mass citizen armies;
the levee en masse the nation in arms, and professionally trained regulars, fighting likefor-like opponents. There was a large volume of irregular conflicts, but the ones that stick
out in the pages of history and (particularly the West's) collective memory are the major
inter-state wars, namely the two world wars. The tactical and operational methods of
waging war developed during this time continue to dominate Western military thinking, and
the strategic and political philosophy defining Western militaries continues to be dominated
by Clausewitz. However, a particular way of war has emerged in the Anglo-American
military sphere a desire for low casualties, the pre-eminence of strategic air and naval
power, and a reliance on high technology and stand-off weaponry. World Wars I and II
continue to have a heavy influence on the way that the West thinks about conventional,
inter-state war-fighting. The combined-arms concept still remains dominant. This has
remained particularly effective in fighting like-for-like opponents such as Iraq in the Persian
Gulf of 1990-91, and the initial phase of the Iraq invasion in 2003. Yet all this has only
remained supreme in an era where the nation-state has been the ultimate, unquestioningly
dominant political entity and the concept of unified national identity and patriotism lies
strongly in the hearts and minds of a nation's people.

Presently, however, this is changing, and indeed it has already changed significantly. The
modern world is now defined by a much flatter distribution of power, and more disparate
groups are able to have an influence in global politics. The key word here is global;
globalisation has occurred through the jet engine, the mobile phone and the Internet
affordable rapid global air travel and the advent of modern communication and information

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technologies have allowed people to cross borders in a dimension previously


unimaginable. Ideas flow; people from all across the world identify strongly with each
other. No longer are foreign countries places on a map marked here be dragons to a
significant portion of the world's people. National identity in the West is becoming seen as
less important in the way that it was by a greater percentage of the population; liberal,
secular people identify with their opposite numbers across the world and see themselves
more as global citizens than national ones a paradigm shift in identity politics, particularly
amongst millenials. Ordinary citizens hold a much greater stake in domestic and foreign
affairs, and never has public opinion been such a significant force in global politics.
Globalisation also allows more nefarious activities to take place in secret. Terrorists and
criminals who see new opportunities to seize power can assemble and communicate,
make plans and launch attacks. Low-intensity conflict, terrorism and insurgency are
increasingly attractive options for disaffected groups looking for a stake in the domestic
affairs of a nation or even for regional influence. The asymmetric methods of fighting that
characterise such ways in warfare are the only viable means through which the
qualitatively superior US and NATO forces can be defeated.

The British Army has, to an extent, brought itself up to speed with the realities of the
contemporary operating environment. Yet it seems determined to run the risk of losing its
wealth of experience through a combination of issues. Retention of experienced soldiers is
proving troublesome, especially in the wake of deep defence cuts and four tranches of
redundancies, which have had a hugely damaging effect on morale. In addition, its main
effort is now set on the return to contingency which is sold as a re-balancing of forces to
face whatever threat may come next. Many, however, have interpreted it as a return to the
Cold War, going back to old ways of soldiering and encouraging its troops to quite literally

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forget about Afghanistan. On the one hand this is very sensible, as predicting what future
warfare is going to be like is a nigh-on impossible task and a well-balanced force capable
of executing the full range of military operations is essential.

However, the corporate line is that training for what is defined as major war makes the
execution of all other forms of war-fighting significantly easier; that if one knows how to
fight total war it is much easier to step down to any other form of conflict. Yet experience
in Afghanistan and Iraq has given the West a large amount of evidence to suggest that this
is not the case. The British Army has, in the twentieth century, fought major wars very well
and certainly did exceptionally well in the conventional phases in both Afghanistan and
Iraq in 2001 and 2003, but has struggled to adapt to a lower-intensity form of warfare
afterwards. Faced with different tactics, such as complex ambushes and the heavy use of
IEDs, coupled with an ability on the part of the enemy to blend into the human terrain, the
British Army struggled to adapt its tactics, techniques and procedures to defeat a very
cunning adversary, despite a long and relatively successful history of fighting low-intensity
conflict. The changing political narrative surrounding the conflict did little to assist
policymakers and operational commanders in forming a coherent strategy, setting the
whole campaign up for strategic failure. This is in spite of the work of promising new COIN
advocates such as David Kilcullen and John Nagl.

This work starts by exploring fundamental COIN principles and relating them to how the
British Army conducts operations as a whole. The second chapter addresses issues of
conventional war-fighting and the preferred British way in warfare. It then expands to cover
the origins and strategic background of the ongoing operations in Afghanistan, with a
section on Afghan culture. It then goes on to track the expansion into Helmand Province in

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2006, and how the conventional mind-set of the British Army led to it alienating itself from
the population in short order. Moving on to a switch in tactics by both sides around the turn
of 2009, with a revival of COIN doctrine by the British and the changing insurgent
emphasis on IEDs, it examines the development of the latest COIN doctrine; how it can be
a successful operational method and yet not be a substitute for a coherent strategy, which
is again addressed in greater detail. The closing chapters attempt to explore what the
future may hold for Afghanistan, COIN, and the British Army.

**

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Chapter 1: Counterinsurgency fundamentals

To begin with a comprehensive analysis of counterinsurgency (COIN) and its


effectiveness, it is important to precisely define what insurgency is and the effect it is
supposed to achieve. Insurgency is a form of political violence that seeks to overthrow the
established political order and instate its own form of governance. In one US government
guide to COIN, it is defined as the organised use of subversion and violence to seize,
nullify or challenge political control of a region. 1 Critically, the insurgent group(s) must be
those who are not recognised as legitimate belligerents. David Kilcullen, a former
Australian Army officer and notable figure in the study of counterinsurgency, describes it as
a competition between each side to mobilise popular support for its agenda. 2 COIN differs
from conventional war-fighting in one critical aspect. While conventional fighting is
designed to mass firepower at the given time or place to destroy the enemy, COIN
requires its practitioners to achieve the isolation of the insurgency from the host-nation
population.3 Insurgencies are typically of a fragmented nature; they have typically been flat
and loosely organised, relatively lightly armed, and they live amongst the local population
of the territory in which they operate. In order for the counterinsurgents to win, they must
succeed in isolating the insurgents from the local population, depriving them of physical
support (sources of supply and refuge from counterinsurgent forces) and moral support
(the use of informants and propaganda). They must then build on that by holding the
centres of population and conducting frequent, aggressive patrolling into outlying and
isolated areas, all the time ensuring that the host-nation government and security forces
1 U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide, p.2 (2009). Available online at:
http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/119629.pdf [Accessed 04 July 2015].
2 Kilcullen, D., Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency, p.29. Available
online at: http://www.au.af.mil/info-ops/iosphere/iosphere_summer06_kilcullen.pdf [Accessed 15 July
2015.]
3 Nagl J., in Galula, D., Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, p. vii (Westport, Praeger Security
International, 1964).

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achieve the required level of legitimacy and sustainment required to take over from the
counterinsurgent forces, and also assisting IGOs and NGOs in civilian development
activities and reconstruction projects.4 In most contemporary Western literature on
counterinsurgency, the onus is on the counterinsurgent forces to use what is described as
a comprehensive approach to defeat the insurgency. 5 This means mobilising all elements
of political, economic and soft power to turn the population away from the insurgents,
denying them their support base. The use of military force is to guarantee their security
and safety, to suppress the insurgency by force where necessary but only where
necessary. It is a sub-component of COIN that is required to set the conditions for the
civilian development programme to take place and political will to be imposed from the
host-nation government. In this way, COIN can be viewed as a strategy, but this is to
conflate strategic ends with operational means. COIN sets the conditions by which
governments re-assert their legitimacy and regain the population's support. The strategic
end is to achieve stabilisation. In the context of Afghanistan, it is a joint, interagency,
intergovernmental and multinational effort to rebuild the country. 6 The use of force is to set
the conditions and creates the first paradox of COIN: the more force that is used, the less
effective it becomes.7

The core tenets of population-centred counterinsurgency, from a military point of view,


should be:

Isolate the insurgents from their bases of support, both material and moral;
4 Ahern, C., Clear, Hold, Build: Modern Political Techniques in COIN, p.1 (2008). Available online at:
http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA495007 [Accessed 28 May 2015.]
5 Pounds, N. in Bailey et al., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.225 (Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.,
2013).
6 'Clear, Hold, and Build'. US Army Combined Arms Center. Available online at:
http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/AIWFC/COIN/.../8-Clear%20Hold%20Build.ppt [Accessed 11 July 2015.]
7 United States Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, p.48 [1-150] (Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
2007).

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Contain the military element of the insurgency; keep the pressure on insurgent
forces in the field to prevent them from engaging with the local population;
Absolutely minimise civilian casualties, and when you cause them, be open and
honest about them. Record them accurately, treat them and recompense the
bereaved families;
Protect the local population from hostile attack and intimidation and carry out
reassurance operations to win their trust;
Over time, allow local nationals to come to your bases to deliver information and
liaise with your commanders in order to more effectively target insurgent leaders.

The first lesson is that in counterinsurgency, the local population matters more than the
delivery of hard combat power; protecting them from intimidation matters first and
foremost.8 Military forces have a predisposition to view ground as the most important
factor. In a conventional war, the seizure and retention of territory is the measure of
success. But in counterinsurgency, 'human terrain' matters infinitely more than physical
terrain yet its seizure, retention and domination is vital for population protection. In order
to fulfil the requirements of that first tenet, to isolate the insurgents from their bases of
support, one must be able to deliver security, and crucially, to deliver on promises. One
maxim remains true: In this battlefield popular perceptions and rumor[sic] are more
influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks. 9 If the local population
does not believe that the counterinsurgent force and more importantly the host-nation
government can deliver a better future for them, they will lose. This is not to say, however,
that territorial control does not have an effect. It matters in a different way. In conventional

8 Nagl, J., Knife Fights, p.130 (New York, The Penguin Press, 2014.)
9 Kilcullen, D., Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency, p.29. Available
online at: http://www.au.af.mil/info-ops/iosphere/iosphere_summer06_kilcullen.pdf [Accessed 15 July
2015.]

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war it is a question of firstly, securing and advancing the front line and secondly, being able
to secure the supply routes from the rear areas to the front line. In counterinsurgency it is
not about holding fixed positions and lines, but about having the manpower to influence
populations; to be able to dominate the controlled territory, in order to ensure that
insurgents cannot threaten the people. Additionally, not only does one have to dominate
the centre, but one should aggressively patrol outlying, rural and isolated areas to keep the
insurgents on the back foot and to prevent them being able to successfully regroup and
plan further attacks on population centres. 10

The modern military culture of professional armies does not lend itself well to thinking
about low-intensity conflict in different terms from what they are typically trained for.
Indeed, adaptability has been highlighted as a core strength of insurgencies and a core
weakness of standing armies often called upon to perform counterinsurgency. In that case
then, are armies really the best tools for counterinsurgency operations? One could suggest
they are not; indeed, in the case of Northern Ireland which could reasonably be classed as
a victory for the British, the British Army was very much subordinate to the civilian efforts of
the Royal Ulster Constabulary who took primacy in the maintenance of law and order in
Belfast from 1976.11 John Nagl, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel, agrees that it is not
within the core philosophy of conventional armies to successfully prosecute COIN. 12 One
thing that must be said is that it is very difficult to train ordinary soldiers to become
effective at dealing with the local population. It is hard for the majority of people to truly
understand this, but first and foremost, soldiers want to fight; they do not want to be social

10 U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Warrior Handbook, p.222 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Available online at:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=OUUrBgAAQBAJ [Accessed 19 August 2015.]
11 Ripley, T., Security Forces in Northern Ireland 1969-1992, p.14 (Oxford, Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1993).
Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=D-IIpG8Bdq0C [Accessed 11 July 2015].
12 Nagl J., in Galula, D., Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, p. ix (Westport, Praeger Security
International, 1964).

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workers.13 They are trained and cultured to exact violence and their natural disposition
does not lend itself well to acting as diplomats. This is not always a bad thing. Armies are
primarily for fighting wars, and military personnel need to be capable of exacting that
violence. However, the point is that one cannot train a force for high-intensity war-fighting
and expect it to be able to instantly step down successfully to other operations that
demand a completely different operating philosophy. It is hard to educate the career
soldier, who has been cultured and educated in the philosophy of conventional war-fighting
for all of his career, in the much more subtle and nuanced art of counterinsurgency, which
demands much more in the way of people skills and restraint when it comes to the use of
force but also to retain the ability to flick the switch to high-intensity fighting when the
balloon goes up, which it often does.

On the subject of people skills, counterinsurgency demands effective civil-military cooperation (CIMIC); the ability of armies to work with development agencies in
reconstruction projects. Although these development agencies and armed forces will
almost never come under unified command or actually work in tandem with each other, the
cultural divides between civilian aid workers and soldiers also have a pronounced effect on
achieving the strategic goals. As Frank Ledwidge puts it, there are few societies more
insular than the British military universe14, and this has led to conflict. Both civilian
assistance workers and the military have an inherent mistrust of each other, due mainly to
their stereotypically vastly different world-views. Military personnel stereotypically tend to
view international development as somewhat pointless, wasteful and futile, while civilian
development workers tend to view military personnel as uncompromising, undiplomatic,
and unhelpful. Soldiers come from a much more rigid, hierarchical background whereas
13 Galula, D., Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, p. 63 (Westport, Praeger Security
International, 1964).
14 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars, p.202 (London, Yale University Press, 2011).

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development workers tend to be independently-minded, work in much flatter organisations


and are given much more freedom of action in their field work. 15 In spite of the high
capacity for tension between civilian agencies and the military, counterinsurgency relies on
a high level of civil-military co-operation to be successful. The military aspect of COIN is
supposed to enable civilian development efforts; to set the conditions, a phrase that is so
often heard in operational orders. However, on the flip side, development agencies must
maintain neutrality in the eyes of the population, particularly in areas where loyalties are
heavily divided. To be seen to be co-operating with an occupying military force puts the
lives of aid workers at risk and also damages the prospect of achieving the consent of the
local population.16

Ask any well-versed British officer on the history of British COIN and he will in all
probability tell tales of success in Northern Ireland, Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. Yet every
single example is vastly different from Afghanistan, and with the exception of Northern
Ireland, some very questionable tactics were used that would simply not be acceptable to
global opinion today. In Malaya, entire villages were relocated into what have been
described as concentration camps for their own protection; in Kenya there was
indiscriminate violence applied against large sectors of the population, largely hidden from
the public eye, and in Cyprus, there was never a way in which the UK was able to effective
win over the population and achieve a truly favourable political settlement which is
ultimately the point of counterinsurgency; to achieve legitimacy amongst the host-nation's
population in order to finish a long and protracted fight on more acceptable terms for the
counterinsurgents.
15 Carey, H., Richmond, O., Mitigating Conflict: The Role of NGOs, p.30 (London, Frank Cass Publishers,
2003). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=940FcRtMa0YC [Accessed 14 July 2015.]
16 Boska, M., Ehrhart, H-G., Civil-Military Cooperation in Post-Conflict Rehabilitation and Reconstruction:
Recommendations for Practical Action, p.10 (Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden, 2008). Available online at:
http://www.europarl.europa.eu/meetdocs/2009_2014/documents/sede/dv/sede260410studyehrhart_/sede
260410studyehrhart_en.pdf [Accessed 08 August 2015.]

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COIN is an operational method designed to enable the wider political component of a


stabilisation strategy that uses the military element to achieve the minimum level of
security required for civilian development to take place. The civilian development must
work in tandem with, but also must avoid association with, the military. Following the
classically accepted 80:20 ratio of political to military means provides a good starting
point.17 If COIN is about influencing populations, the key element in the equation for
successful COIN is having the right level of manpower. The doctrine states that
approximately 20 security personnel should be deployed for every 1,000 civilians in a
given area.18 Critically, this ratio must also be applied in the right concentration for each
area, not just across the nation, languishing in large bases and the like. Additionally, forcemultipliers such as attack helicopters and artillery pieces are not a substitute, due to the
increased risk of collateral damage and their lack of persistence they cannot be used to
seize and hold ground. If the population are not totally protected from insurgent activity, the
insurgents will continue to retain a hold over the people and the efforts of the
counterinsurgents will not succeed.

**

17 Galula, D., Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, p.63 (Westport, Praeger Security
International, 1964).
18 British Army Field Manual, Volume 1 Part 10: Countering Insurgency, CS 1-2 (Army Code 71876, 2009).
Available online at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/16_11_09_army_manual.pdf [Accessed 04
August 2015.]

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Chapter 2: Antecedents: the British way in warfare, the


Manoeuvrist Approach and modern military culture

A certain corporate philosophy exists in the organisation of conventional armies which


arguably does not lend itself well to counterinsurgency. The British Army is no different,
and it is primed to wage expeditionary warfare at the divisional level. To train for
conventional war-fighting does not automatically allow one to prosecute low-intensity
conflict successfully, especially where interaction with civilians and aid agencies is
concerned. We will now take a look at the so-called British way in warfare and its
implications for how the British Army looks at counterinsurgency today and how it has
done so historically.

The British way of battle


Much has been written about a so-called Western way of war, a certain institutional and
cultural preference for a particular way of fighting; one that has its origins in wider social
norms and political preferences.19 The Western way of war is more than just about how
armies engage in battle but how Western societies react to armed conflict and statesponsored violence in general, and these changes have arguably resulted in military riskaversion and casualty shyness; a good example being the way that the 1999 intervention
in Yugoslavia was prosecuted.20 Broadly speaking, modern concepts of conventional warfighting at least for the British Army rest largely in manoeuvre warfare, supported by

19 Skelly, P., Evolution in 'The Western Way of War': Continuity, Punctuated Equilibrium, Neither? p.2.
Available online at: http://www.milhist.net/norwich/pskelly2.pdf [Accessed 20 July 2015.]
20 Shaw, M., The New Western Way of War, p.22 (Polity Press, Cambridge, 2005). Available online at:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dB5No2vThrcC [Accessed 28 August 2015].

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the doctrine of Mission Command.21 Its origins lie in the First and Second World Wars with
the development of combined-arms engagements, and developing beyond that into the
Nuclear Age, as US-led NATO and the Russian-led Warsaw Pact battled furiously in the
Cold War to develop the most destructive and most efficient means of delivering massive
quantities of conventional weaponry, armour and nuclear weapons both strategic and
tactical across what would no doubt be a chemically-soaked wasteland in north-west
Europe (it was anticipated that the full spectrum of chemical and biological weapons would
be employed).22 Yet significantly less literature has been devoted to the British way of war;
largely because of its similarities with the US.

British war-fighting philosophy draws heavily from Clausewitzian concepts such as the
enemy's centre of gravity, that war is a political instrument the continuation of politics by
other means, i.e. violence.23 These principles pervade all three armed services and give
the reader an insight into the lens through which Western nations conduct their military
missions. Strictly speaking, the British Army is a conventional fighting force that comprises
two divisions (1st (United Kingdom) Division and 3rd (United Kingdom) Division), each
consisting of multiple brigades.24 Each brigade is then broken down into regiments,
battalions or battle groups, which then consist of sub-units from company / squadron,
down through platoon / troop to section level. Each level has its command structure and
often additional supporting elements. These units are designed to work in concert with
21 Army Doctrine Publication: Operations, 5-2 (Shrivenham, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre,
2010). Available online at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/33695/ADPOperationsDec1
0.pdf [Accessed 01 August 2015.]
22 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.142 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).
23 Joint Doctrine Publication 0-01: UK Defence Doctrine (Fifth Edition), pp.28-36 (London, Ministry of
Defence, 2014). Available online at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/389755/20141208JDP_0_01_Ed_5_UK_Defence_Doctrine.pdf [Accessed 04 July 2015.]
24 British Army Structure. Available online at: http://www.army.mod.uk/structure/structure.aspx [Accessed
04 July 2015.]

p.20 / 76

each other and with heavy fire support to seize and hold ground, and the basic hallmark of
a success in a conventional army is how well it brings firepower and manoeuvre to bear on
its opponent in order to destroy or defeat it in the field. It is as much about how well it is
trained and led, as much as it is about the firepower it employs. The crowning moment for
the Western way in warfare came in 1991 in the Gulf War. In a primarily armoured fight
supported heavily by air, 45,000 UK troops were deployed to assist an international
coalition to defend Saudi Arabia and to push Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait. After
a month-long air offensive, a decisive left hook into the open desert in the west of Iraq
almost totally destroyed the Iraqi Army in a 100-hour offensive that seemed to vindicate
the previous 45 years of preparation for a particular kind of conflict that manifested itself
just at the right time against the right opponent, in the face of what was suspected to be a
superior Soviet doctrine.25 Britain had found herself involved in various conflicts a
continuous basis since 1945, each of which varied hugely in scope and character (and
with mixed success), but the majority of the British Armys training emphasis was focused
on the prospect of a large-scale armoured confrontation with the Soviet Union. Although
the British Armys opponents in 1990 were not Russian, they were largely using Soviet
equipment, usually following Soviet doctrine, and they demonstrated the weaknesses
therein.

Yet in some ways the operational and tactical superiority of Allied forces on this occasion
actually proved itself to be the final nail in its own coffin. The degree to which Saddam's
forces had been destroyed so completely and so quickly demonstrated to all future and
potential opponents that the only means of defeating the US and NATO would be through
unconventional means26 no sensible opponent would attempt to fight them in open battle,
25 Strachan, H., The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective, p.18 (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2013).
26 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare, p.191 (London, Constable & Robinson, 2008).

p.21 / 76

as they would be comprehensively destroyed, just as the Iraqis had been. As Lt Col John
Nagl puts it, We turned the fourth largest army in the world into the second largest army in
Iraq in 100 hours.27 (This is slightly misleading, seeing as the Iraqis had been subject to a
month-long air offensive that destroyed 50% of Iraqi armour before the ground forces had
even crossed the start line, but the point stands. 28) What is important to note is how
winners in war tend not to leading advocates for radical change in their ways in fact they
excuse it.29 The ground offensive in the Iraq desert was characterised by the currently
dominant operating concept in modern warfare: manoeuvre.

Manoeuvre warfare
Understanding manoeuvre warfare is critical to understanding the British approach to war,
as all officers and soldiers are schooled in its principles from day one of their initial
training. It is an operational concept, with its theoretical origins largely in German
operational and tactical developments from the First and Second World Wars. It differs
from traditional, attrition-based warfare in the sense that it seeks to cause decision-making
paralysis rather than seek the wholesale annihilation of the enemy force by direct attack. It
is defined in US Marine Corps doctrine as a warfighting philosophy that seeks to shatter
the enemy's cohesion... [to create a] rapidly deteriorating situation with which the enemy
cannot cope.30 The combined-arms approach to warfare came of age in the First World
War by the spring of 1918, after much trial and error by both sides in their efforts to break
the deadlock on the Western Front. The Allies had begun to co-ordinate the activities of
land and air assets, with massed tanks, artillery timetables and air support. The Germans
were pioneering the use of their infiltration tactics using storm-troopers, limited quantities
27 Nagl, J., Knife Fights, p.19 (New York, The Penguin Press, 2014).
28 Willmott, H., Barrett, M., Clausewitz Reconsidered, p.111. (California, Greenwood Publishing Group,
2010.) Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=v4Ah_JodJaQC [Accessed 17 July 2015].
29 Kiszely, J., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.122 (Franham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013).
30 US Marine Corps publication MCDP1 Warfighting, p.73, in Jordan, D. et al., Understanding Modern
Warfare (Seventh Edition), p.99 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014).

p.22 / 76

of tanks, and the use of tactical air power in the same ways as the Allies, but the German
approach sought to be decentralised and flexible, with small unit tactics centred around a
light machine gun, and the use of initiative encouraged at the lowest possible level. 31 This
gave rise to the concept of auftragstaktik, loosely translated today as Mission Command.
Defensive tactics had to change in order to counter these new effects. German tactics in
particular went through much development and adaptation between the wars, and all of
the operating concepts that British and American forces use today owe much of their
development to the Wehrmacht of 1940, who thoroughly understood the need for surprise,
simplicity and high operational tempo, and critically, the need for shock action. Shock
action was largely achieved with the use of massed armour, which their opponents could
not effectively counter in the early stages of the war.

In order to critically understand manoeuvre warfare, we must define the following effects
that armed forces seek to achieve on their opponent:

Shock effect: A state where all or part of the enemy is rendered numb, lifeless,
inactive or acting irrationally.

Shock action: The sudden, concentrated application of violence. Associated with a


rapid approach such as a bayonet or cavalry charge, tank attack, or dive bomb
attack. Also includes the effect of concentrated high explosive.

Suppression: The effect of small arms and other weapons which prevents the
enemy firing its weapons or moving in the open while the fire is falling. (Immediate,
non-persistent effect.) Achieving suppression is used to fix the enemy, which is to

31 Jordan, D. et al., Understanding Modern Warfare (Seventh Edition), p.87 (Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 2014).

p.23 / 76

prevent an enemy from moving any part of his forces from a specified location for a
specified period of time32, and usually is found in operational orders as a precursor
to the effects verb destroy.

Neutralisation: The effect of weapons which prevents the enemy firing its weapons
or moving in the open for some time after the fire stops. (Immediate or delayed,
depending on weapon systems involved; persistent effect.)

Destruction: death or incapacitation. For a piece of equipment, such as an


armoured fighting vehicle, this means rendered unusable for the purposes of the
engagement.

Surprise: general meaning.

Dr Jim Storr states that these effects are best achieved with explosive weapons, and small
arms serve the purpose of fixing an opponent in his current position in order to enable his
destruction by high explosive. Suppression, neutralisation and destruction are typically
individual effects. Surprise and shock can affect individuals or groups, but shock effect is
purely a collective phenomenon. Collective surprise is closely related to command, in
terms of both commanders psychology and the behaviour of the staff of command posts. 33
Suppression can be achieved with small arms fire, but shock effect is achieved only by
large, concentrated quantities of high explosive (usually by mortars, artillery and airdropped munitions. Automatic grenade launchers such as the Grenade Machine Gun and
man-portable explosive weapons are becoming more popular amongst the infantry, such

32 Wade, N., The Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) SMARTbook: Guide to Battle Staff Operations & the
Rapid Response Planning Process, 8-7 (Lakeland, The Lightning Press, 2012). Available online at:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=C5r-CQAAQBAJ [Accessed 18 August 2015].
33 Storr, J., High Explosive: Shock Effect in Dismounted Combat, p.56 (Royal United Services Institute,
RUSI Defence Systems, 2010). Available online at:
https://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/storr_RDS_feb2010.pdf [Accessed 05 June 2015.]

p.24 / 76

as underslung grenade launchers and shoulder-launched rockets such as ASM or


NLAW34). Indeed, Storr maintains that the role of small arms in combat is to suppress in
order to facilitate the opponents destruction, not necessarily to kill large numbers of
enemy outright.35 Suppression is usually used to allow friendly forces to manoeuvre,
usually to facilitate an assault which in doctrinal terms means to close with the enemy
and destroy them. Achieving shock effect, however, has been likened to a 2000-to-1 force
ratio, a hugely significant advantage.36 By establishing suppression, achieving shock
effect, and then closing with the enemy, the attacking force is much more likely to achieve
decisive tactical success. It can either force the surrender of the defenders, drive them off
the ground (allowing the front line of the attacking force to advance), or if necessary to kill
the defenders at close quarters with rifle, grenade and bayonet. A prolonged fire-fight
without manoeuvre to close with the opponent is usually indecisive.

Manoeuvre warfare demands that attacking forces achieve a whole host of these effects
on their opponent, namely surprise and shock effect, executed through shock action and
the maintenance of a high operational tempo. This final point is of particular importance;
breaking into the opponents decision-making cycle, forcing him to react to one's own
actions rather than vice-versa, keeps him on the back foot and allows the former to take
the initiative. This is explained in the Boyd (OODA) Loop Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act
a decision-making cycle named after its creator, Col John Boyd, USAF. 37 In this way, one
can achieve dominance over the opponent by working through the Boyd Loop faster,
34 ASM: Anti-Structures Munition; NLAW: Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon.
35 Storr, J., The Real Role of Small Arms in Combat, p.45 (Royal United Services Institute, RUSI Defence
Systems, 2009). Available online at:
https://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/Real_Role_of_Small_Arms_RDS_Summer_09.pdf [Accessed 05
June 2015.]
36 Storr, J., Manoeuvre and Weapons Effect on the Battlefield, p.61 (Royal United Services Institute, RUSI
Defence Systems, 2010). Available online at:
https://www.rusi.org/downloads/assets/RDS_Oct2010_Storr.pdf [Accessed 05 June 2015].
37 Hayden, H., Warfighting: Maneuver Warfare in the U.S. Marine Corps, p.19 (London, Greenhill Books,
1995).

p.25 / 76

preventing him from executing his own offensive operations, and paralysing his ability to
make decisions by striking at his centres of command and control (C2), attacking the key
nodes that link these C2 centres to their field units, and then to strike at those units in the
field from a flank or from the rear, from which they will usually be unprotected or certainly
less so. Moving to gain positional advantage in order to dislocate or more effectively
destroy the enemy is nothing new, but the key element of manoeuvre is to achieve
decision-paralysis over the enemy to prevent him from mounting a co-ordinated response.
By disrupting command and control, attacking at times and places the enemy least
expects it, and forcing the enemy to constantly react to your own actions, you prevent
them from being able to mount a successful, co-ordinated defence and thus vastly
reducing the effectiveness of modern weaponry. In this way, one does not actually have to
kill large numbers of the enemy, but precipitate a psychological collapse as the enemy
finds itself out-thought and out-manoeuvred. (This arguably has its origins in the indirect
approach advocated by Basil Liddell-Hart. 38) Critically, then, manoeuvre warfare places
primacy on the offensive; one should always attack and keep attacking in order to keep the
opponent off-balance. This is a philosophy that must be understood in order to
appreciate how the conventionally-oriented British Army approached COIN initially in
Afghanistan.

Modern military culture


The distinctly professional mindset of the British Army provides an insight into how soldiers
and officers view their roles. Soldiers and officers seek professional development; the
former through operational deployments and career courses and, for the latter, the same
as well as stints at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Shrivenham, for the

38 Stone, J., Military Strategy: The Politics and Technique of War, p.65 (London, Bloomsbury, 2011).

p.26 / 76

Intermediate Command and Staff Course and Higher Command and Staff Course. 39 The
ethos is very rigid; mavericks and heretics do not go far, with very few notable
exceptions.40 Hard-charging, career minded combat officers seek promotion and are
always chasing after their 1-up commanders job. To take command of the next formation
up is seen as the natural path to professional excellence and by association the next
promotion, with all the material and esteem benefits therein. 41 Within that lies an emphasis
on knowing how to command, and the culturally approved apogee of one's command
ability lies in the successful execution of major combat operations, not the fraught, murky
environment of small wars and counterinsurgency where success is much harder to define
and the consequences of success or failure are much less clear; it is something of a
marginalised area of warfare for all conventional armies. 42 The latter is not usually seen as
the kind of warfare that wins medals, mentions in despatches and glowing reports the
fastest and best ways to get promotion. Rather than investing every ounce of energy into
winning the war, the emphasis shifts to surviving the tour. Evidence of this lies in the sixmonth rotation cycle for commanders and brigades alike; several months preparation for
deployment, deploy on operations usually with a signature, kinetic large-scale offensive
operation and glowing reports for all concerned followed by a return home and the
awarding of operational honours and an all-round job well done, merely for the cycle to
repeat itself. The medals issue is the best way to illustrate this; campaign medals and
operational honours are not the mark of exceptional performance, they are the norm; the
professional yardstick by which every officer is judged.43 This does not encourage
39 Kiszely, J., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.124 (Franham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013).
40 Simpkin, R., 1985, p.166, in Kiszely, J., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.124 (Franham, Ashgate
Publishing Ltd., 2013).
41 Elliott, C., High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, p.71 (Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2015). Available online at: https://play.google.com/books/reader?
id=vhIoBgAAQBAJ [Accessed 17 July 2015].
42 Tuck, C., Understanding Land Warfare, p.131 (Oxford, Routledge, 2014). Available online at:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4zBzAwAAQBAJ [Accessed 12 July 2015].
43 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.181 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).

p.27 / 76

consistent campaign planning something that will be discussed again in detail later.

Key points:
The modern British Army is structured and cultured for a medium-level conventional
engagement using combined-arms, under its doctrine of the Manoeuvrist Approach. It is
aware of the need for diverse capabilities and people skills for military operations other
than war, but its raison d'etre is to use heavy weapons and manoeuvre to achieve
operational success. The concepts that define military success in manoeuvre warfare are
all based on Clausewitzian perceptions of war. This speaks volumes about how Britain and
America perceive war and its place in the political toolbox. Success in counterinsurgency
requires a completely different way of thinking about and applying military force. Rather
than the delivery of hard firepower and the taking of ground, counterinsurgency puts
primacy on the local population, gathering information and using non-military agencies and
tools to garner support for the cause. Heavy firepower should be curtailed. Overall, the
professional military culture embedded within the British Army (and within most
professional armies worldwide) does not necessarily lend itself well to conducting
counterinsurgency, both in a tactical sense and also in terms of its 'corporate philosophy';
its ways of thinking about fighting and the natural martial spirit embedded within every
soldier and officer makes it difficult to think about fighting in a different way. This would
have stark implications, not so much for the limited military mission in the first five years of
the conflict, but certainly so for 2006 onwards.

**

p.28 / 76

Chapter 3: Light footprint: initial stages of the


Afghanistan campaign, 2001-2006
Britain has a long and chequered history of intervention in Afghanistan. She had first
attempted to conquer Afghanistan in the nineteenth century during the so-called Great
Game; the long-standing imperial rivalry with Russia. Two campaigns were fought; the
first from 1839-1842 and the second in 1878-1880. Both were costly in blood and treasure,
and achieved little political gain for Britain. In 1893, the Durand Line was established,
which defines Afghanistans eastern border. It divides the majority of the Afghan Pashtun
population (as of 2008, 15% of Pakistans population consisted of 28 million Pashtuns
divided by the Durand Line44). Afghanistans borders are extremely volatile and foreign
fighters pay little attention to them; something that national armed forces cannot do without
fear of serious political repercussions (operations such as Neptunes Spear being a case
in point; the attacking US forces had to use stealth and speed to avoid provoking the wrath
of the Pakistani Air Force). The return to Afghanistan by British forces would revive many
long-harboured sentiments from the Afghan people.

Afghan society
Afghan society is made up of many different ethnic groups, and indeed the concept of
Afghanistan as a unified country did not exist until 1919. It is extremely provincial, with
very little effectiveness derived from centralised government. The different ethnic groups
comprise Pashtu (approximately 45%), Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Mongol descendants,
Baluchis and Kuchis.45 Power lies in the hands of warlords and heads of regional tribes, all
44 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.343 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).
45 Riley, J., in Bailey et al., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.237 (Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2013).

p.29 / 76

of who are subject to fierce infighting. Issues of honour and revenge are set out in a blood
code, and the hospitality code of Pashtunwali has consistently baffled Westerners. These
particular cultural issues are not to be taken lightly in the context of a counterinsurgency;
when people respond to killing by revenge killing as a matter of principle, it should
encourage occupying forces to be very careful about how they go about conducting
offensive operations.46 In addition, Afghans have very long collective memories, spanning
hundreds of years, and grudges persist. For the British this is particularly important, as the
legacy of the nineteenth century still casts a shadow over contemporary operations
Afghans do not like the British and they make no secret of it. Foreign rule is resented in
any country, but this is a particularly salient point for Afghans. Places like Kabul and
Kandahar are relatively easy to secure and control in contrast with areas such as the
Pashtun south, and Helmand in particular, where central government has little influence in
people's daily lives and corruption is par for the course. 47 It provides a soft target for the
Taliban to be able to impose their own shadow government, and indeed it was already
firmly in place by 2006, with 11 provinces maintaining one in some form, even after the
Taliban leadership had been toppled so decisively from Kabul and Kandahar in 2001. 48

Operation ENDURING FREEDOM


The origins for the campaign in Afghanistan, in strategic terms, are not clear. What is clear
is that the United States, unused to devastating attacks on its own soil, demanded that
something must be done in retaliation.49 The United States, as a matter of principle,
46 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.345 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).
47 Pounds, N. in Bailey et al., British Generals in Blair's Wars, p.230 (Farnham, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.,
2013).
48 Nijssen, S., The Taliban's Shadow Government in Afghanistan, p.1 (Civil Military Fusion Centre, 2011).
Available online at:
http://www.operationspaix.net/DATA/DOCUMENT/6400~v~The_Taliban_s_Shadow_Government_in_Afgh
anistan.pdf [Accessed 14 August 2015.]
49 Davis, T., The Global War on Terror: 9/11, Iraq, and America's Crisis In The Middle East, p.24
(Bloomington, Xlibris Corporation, 2008). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?
id=QcI5u6EizPoC [Accessed 12 August 2015].

p.30 / 76

needed to find the person(s) responsible and bring them to justice. As the most powerful
nation in the world, economically and militarily, It seemed to be the very purpose of its
armed forces to go to war against those people responsible; in essence, to lash out. One
British officer the author spoke to agreed with this approach. 50 Admittedly, targeted
counter-terrorism operations may have been a safer bet in political terms than a long,
protracted counterinsurgency campaign, but at the time no one in senior command or
political positions was expecting one. With the refusal of the Taliban to give up its AlQaeda fugitives, the US took the decision to wage a conventional campaign under CIA
guidance, in partnership with disaffected tribes and warlords, to oust the Taliban, impose a
friendly government, and continue its search for Osama bin Laden from there. 51 Many
options were on the table, including Tomahawk missile strikes, a missile strike combined
with air power, direct intervention by special operations forces (SOF) or a mix of all three
as a build-up to a conventional attack.52 In the event, the final option was used.

The United Nations passed Security Council Resolution 1373 on 12 September 2001,
authorising enforcement action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The campaign,
named Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF) was expected to be lengthy, with an
estimate of concluding by summer 2002. 53 The initial stages of OEF were operationally
very successful, with Al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps collapsing under a mass of
Tomahawk missiles, strategic bombing and US/Northern Alliance ground forces working in
close co-ordination with tactical air assets. The US/Northern Alliance coalition managed to
achieve its limited military mission, admittedly with much strategic confusion (and also
50 Extract from a recorded interview with a senior British officer (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom,
Shrivenham, 2 September 2015).
51 Finlan, A., Contemporary Military Strategy and the Global War on Terror: US and UK Armed Forces in
Afghanistan and Iraq 2001-2012, p.61 (London, Bloomsbury, 2014).
52 Finlan, A., Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror: Warfare by other means, p.117 (Oxford,
Routledge, 2008).
53 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.345 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).

p.31 / 76

some shaky operational planning in the use of SOF), but it was successful, capturing
Kabul.54 The main operational failure, however, was the failure to apprehend Osama bin
Laden from his hiding place in the Tora Bora mountains. He had been successfully tracked
to that area, and US forces launched an operation to capture or kill him in December 2001.
If they had succeeded, the multinational coalition would have been able to exit Afghanistan
having achieved a tangible outcome the apprehension of the mastermind behind the
9/11 attacks which had been the United States primary reason for entering the country in
the first place. The problem of poorly managed strategy would become more apparent
later in the campaign, particularly after UK forces deployed to Helmand at the start of
Operation HERRICK 4 in 2006. As the Americans continued to hunt fruitlessly for Osama
bin Laden, it was becoming increasingly difficult to sell the campaign to the people back
home, although more attention was being drawn to the failures in Iraq. The lack of any
coherent strategy would sap morale of the armed forces and the public at home. Without a
clear strategy, and through setting a deadline to withdraw from combat operations by the
end of 2014, ISAF essentially handed the insurgents a goal to aim for, fulfiling the
supposedly Afghan maxim, you have the watches, but we have the time. 55 The lack of
any over-arching grand strategy for the Afghanistan campaign is supported by Alastair
Finlan, who notes that the absence of such a strategy represents the ultimate failure to link
military means with political ends.56 One point that is very interesting to note is that interest
in Afghanistan was increasing in a directly proportional relationship with the perception of
failure in ongoing operations in Iraq. A Strategic Defence Review was looming and there
were threats of infantry battalions, amongst other units, being cut to save money. With a
perceived failure in Iraq, and the threat of job losses, the British Army has been accused of
54 Finlan, A., Special Forces, Strategy and the War on Terror: Warfare by other means, p.132 (Oxford,
Routledge, 2008).
55 Afghan adage, in Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's
War in Afghanistan, p.513 (London, Quercus, 2011).
56 Finlan, A., Contemporary Military Strategy and the Global War on Terror: US and UK Armed Forces in
Afghanistan and Iraq 2001-2012, p.76 (London, Bloomsbury, 2014).

p.32 / 76

deploying to the south of Afghanistan to save those battalions and to prove to US forces
that they were capable of doing a better job than they had done in Iraq. 57

The British were smarting from their failure to bring the situation in Iraq under control; a
war unpopular with the British people before it had even been launched. Somewhere
around a million people protested against its execution before the start of the campaign. 58
Reeling, the British Army knew it had to salvage its reputation if it was to survive the next
defence review with the same manning levels. The problem that has faced the British Army
for generations is its small size, and an almost feverish obsession with punching above its
weight by compensating with training and firepower. With operations continuing in Iraq,
there was no chance of sufficient forces being devoted to the Afghan campaign. Even later
on after the withdrawal from Iraq, manpower was still a thorny issue for every commander
who simply did not have enough troops to effectively dominate his given area of
responsibility. The given commitment before 2006 was manageable in terms of troops to
task. Only five people died in the first four years of the campaign; to all intents and
purposes it was a relatively benign and low-key mission, with just 1,300 UK troops
deployed in 2002.59 Of these 1,300 troops, when all the guard duties, supply and other
rear-echelon tasks are factored in, perhaps 130 would have been available at any one
time for offensive operations. This, realistically, could have only hoped to actively patrol
maybe 10 sq km of ground at any given time. This is not a realistic proposition for any
counterinsurgency activity.
57 House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 'The UK's Foreign Policy Approach to Afghanistan and
Pakistan: Fourth Report of Session 2010-11, Volume I', ev.85 (London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office,
2011). Available online at:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmfaff/514/514.pdf [Accessed 04 August
2015].
58 'Million' march against Iraq war'. BBC News, 16 February 2003. Available online at:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/2765041.stm [Accessed 04 August 2015.]
59 Mader, M., In Pursuit of Conceptual Excellence: The Evolution of British Military-Strategic Doctrine in the
Post-Cold War Era, 1989-2002, p.276 (Lang, Peter Bern, 2004). Available online at:
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=4JSQTO0zpVYC [Accessed 13 August 2015].

p.33 / 76

Fortunately, between 2001 and 2006, the British effort was fairly low-key and to an extent
largely forgotten about by the majority of the British public; the campaign was sidelined in
the press over the build-up to Iraq during 2002 and after the campaign began in 2003, all
the talk was of Iraq. Indeed, the mission in Afghanistan drew down largely over 2002 with
only one large-scale operation being conducted by American forces, with minimal
involvement from the UK, in Operation Anaconda. This was fought by US forces in
partnership with loyal Afghan militia, consisting of approximately 3,000 troops against
approximately 800 insurgents. For the remainder of this period, the emphasis was focused
on the establishment and maintenance of PRTs Provincial Reconstruction Teams
which were aimed at expanding the government's authority and co-ordinating
redevelopment efforts. The British were a minor player at this stage, and it was still seen
as the good war when viewed against the backdrop of Iraq. 60 Wider strategic issues from
the British perspective did not register with the British public at this time. NATO took
operational command for the first time in 2003, at which time Afghanistan was still
relatively overlooked in the press, and the invasion of Iraq was consuming vastly greater
resources and inflicting vastly greater casualties on the British and American armed forces.
Pound for pound, UK special forces were doing a much better job at keeping Helmand
pacified than the rest of the green army would do at the start of Operation HERRICK 4 in
2006.

Key points:
This period of time was quiet and relatively successful for the international coalition, with
very few casualties being sustained anywhere in the country. A honeymoon period ensued
60 Williams, J., The Good War: NATO and the Liberal Conscience in Afghanistan, p.1 (Basingstoke,
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CUaYAAAAQBAJ
[Accessed 15 August 2015].

p.34 / 76

while the Northern Alliance established its new government in Kabul after the initial ousting
of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the Taliban still maintained a shadow
government in Helmand. The United States missed a chance to end the multinational
campaign early on when they inadvertently permitted Osama bin Laden to escape from his
place of hiding in the Tora Bora region. The area was not successfully isolated and bin
Laden was able to slip away during an engagement with US forces. Had this been
successful, the coalition could have found its reason to exit Afghanistan and avoid being
dragged in to a time-consuming and costly COIN campaign in later years. Helmand
Province was left unmolested save the presence of special forces, who began a quiet but
relatively effective intelligence gathering operation. Their advice to the remaining force
commanders was not to send regular troops to the province. One possible conclusion that
could be drawn is that special forces were more effective at keeping the area pacified.
Correlation does not always equal causation, but Helmand was a much quieter province
before the arrival of 16 Air Assault Brigade in 2006. Afghanistan was still seen as the good
war, with the majority of British attention being given to Iraq. The wider strategic
shortcomings would not become apparent until much later.

**

p.35 / 76

Chapter 4: Bogged down: The start of Operation


HERRICK 4, platoon houses and the operational
emphasis, 2006-2009

The deployment to Helmand, 2006


British special forces had been operating in the Pashtun south of Helmand for several
months before the decision was taken to launch Operation HERRICK 4. Much of the
reasoning behind deploying forces to Helmand was to take the edge of Britains strategic
failure to achieve decisive effect in Iraq; that somehow Afghanistan was seen by the British
public as the good war. British policymakers chose to ignore the advice from special
forces operating in the south, who protested that the intervention of unsuitably-equipped
conventional forces would prove disastrous to the campaign, not least because of the long
collective memories of the Afghan population they still hold grudges from the 1842
campaigns. The now infamous line by former Defence Secretary John Reid, We would be
perfectly happy to leave in three years without firing one shot because our job is to help
protect the reconstruction61, was decisively proved wrong within six months, after 16 Air
Assault Brigade had fired around half a million rounds of small arms ammunition. 62 From
2006 to 2009, the campaign would be dominated by a largely conventional war-fighting
mindset, and was woefully under-resourced in terms of troops to task. A largely defensive
campaign was fought in 2006, with wider offensive operations being waged in 2007 and
2008. The conventionally-orientated approach led to widespread collateral damage and
alienation of the local population from British forces, hampering the effort to bring about a
61 'FactCheck: a shot in Afghanistan?' Channel 4 News, 14 July 2009. Available online at:
http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/uk/factcheck+a+shot+in+afghanistan/3266362.html [Accessed 09
July 2015.]
62 Fergusson, J., A Million Bullets, p.22 (London, Transworld Publishers, 2008).

p.36 / 76

successful counterinsurgency campaign.

From 2006, at the start of Operation HERRICK 4, the manpower issues were immediately
apparent. British troops were subsequently deployed into 'platoon houses'. These were the
names given to the District Centres of the territories that British forces occupied, and were
occupied in approximately platoon strength in each location (approximately 30 soldiers
commanded by a junior officer). In military terms, a single platoon is very small, lightly
armed and difficult to sustain for long periods. An infantry company (roughly 100 soldiers in
3 platoons) packs a heavier punch, a denser footprint, and would in almost all cases be
assisted by a greater number and variety of weapon systems organised into a Fire Support
Group (FSG). This issue was highlighted by a retired major in The Herald later in 2006.63
Manpower would be a perennial issue throughout operations in Afghanistan; but at this
stage the British Army was also too small to sustain the pace of its concurrent operations
in Iraq. In fact, the initial force estimate of 14,000 troops needed to pacify the region had
been ridiculed, despite the later back-track and eventual trebling of the British force. 64 By
2008, soldiers in every infantry unit were on the operational cycle on a continuous basis;
with two operational theatres being maintained on a four-year rotation cycle, which meant
that the cycle for each brigade was in fact reduced to two years. With each tour lasting for
six months, plus pre-deployment training, and post-operational leave, this meant that each
soldier would be preparing for, engaging in or recovering from a tour for one month out of
every two.65 This is not sustainable, least of all in terms of troop morale (which any good
commander, officer or soldier, will tell you is absolutely indispensable). The length of these
63 Hamilton, M., 'Dangerous concept of 'platoon houses''. The Herald, 29 August 2006. Available online at:
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12520961.Dangerous_concept_of__apos_platoon_houses_apos_/
[Accessed 11 Jully 2015].
64 Elliott, C., High Command: British Military Leadership in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, p.136 (Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2015). Available online at: https://play.google.com/books/reader?
id=vhIoBgAAQBAJ [Accessed 17 July 2015].
65 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.37 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).

p.37 / 76

tours has also been slammed as insufficient, in terms of being able to generate intimate
local knowledge which only comes with time. US forces would do a minimum of 12 months
whereas the British would do six months. The problems with developing adequate local
knowledge over a short time have been apparent since the Northern Ireland campaign. 66
The platoon house strategy was also flawed in the sense that the estimated enemy
strength (and the consequent deployment of forces to counter it) was much lower than was
actually the case, and for a counterinsurgency campaign, an area has to be absolutely
saturated with troops in order to allow continuous, aggressive patrolling beyond the
centres of population and into outlying areas. It was initially suspected that Helmand was
home to fewer than five hundred Taliban at the end of 2005, , but over time, their ranks
would be bolstered by hardened foreign fighters from various countries including Pakistan,
Iran, and Chechnya.67 Critically, however, it was the ignorance of advice and reports
provided to land commanders by the SAS, who had been in-country for some time and
had established themselves well in the heart of Helmand that proved to be the start of the
UKs strategic downfall in Afghanistan. Additionally, the US had a Provincial Reconstruction
Team operating in the area, which was very well resourced and provided with ample force
protection. The PRT was doing very thorough and very careful work to ensure that
development projects were being conducted and resourced, while at the same time
denying the Taliban an opportunity to get its foot in the door. The crux of the SASs
recommendations, outlined in a report submitted in June 2005, was that the British force
should not deploy any further than a central zone in Helmand where it could protect itself

66 Jackson, B., Counterinsurgency Intelligence in a Long War: The British Experience in Northern Ireland,
p.78 (RAND, 2007). Available online at:
http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reprints/2007/RAND_RP1247.pdf [Accessed 12 August
2015.]
67 Wallig, M., Enduring Freedom, Enduring Voices: US Operations in Afghanistan, p.129 (Oxford, Osprey
Publishing, 2015). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=S_9CBgAAQBAJ [Accessed
15 July 2015.]

p.38 / 76

adequately and avoid disrupting the on-going operations of the PRT. 68 This advice was
duly ignored.

Manpower issues and a conventional approach


16 Air Assault Brigade deployed was spread too thinly amongst the various District
Centres, or platoon houses dotted around the province. These district centres came
under sustained attack for a period of months during which time the Brigade fired over half
a million rounds of small arms ammunition and called in vast quantities of other high
explosive ordnance.69 The critical element in the equation here is that the use of heavy
weapons caused significant collateral damage, both in materiel and lives. Countless
Afghan homes and civilian lives were ruined, instantly turning them away from the
Coalition and driving many of them into the open arms of the Taliban, who had in fact been
hugely successful at restoring and maintaining their own law and order throughout the
province since 1996, ending those days of the gun that had been in place for the
previous four years.70 This approach to conventional firepower and heavy use of air
assets in particular was to continue for three years until the doctrine of General
McChrystal (namely that of courageous restraint) started to take hold. Even some US
commanders still didn't seem to 'get it'; one brigade in particular, which incidentally
suffered more losses in Afghanistan than other, was led by a commander who stubbornly
believed that defeating enemy forces in the field mattered infinitely more than improving
the quality of life for local nationals:

68 Dixon, P., The British Approach to Counterinsurgency: From Malaya and Northern Ireland, p.30
(Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?
id=RK_nKWLxk8oC [Accessed 12 July 2015.]
69 According to 1 Royal Anglian's After-Action Review of their subsequent tour in 2007, they had fired 1
million rounds of small arms ammunition, 22,000 mortar and artillery rounds, thrown 500 hand grenades
and launched 7,000 rifle grenades. Additionally, over 200,000 lbs of bombs had been dropped in air
strikes. (Kemp, R., Hughes, C., Attack State Red, p.402 (London, Penguin, 2009).)
70 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.65 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).

p.39 / 76

Military leaders must stay focused on the destruction of the enemy. It is virtually
impossible to convince any committed terrorist who hates America to change his or her
point of viewthey simply must be attacked relentlessly. ... It is appropriate for military
units to develop goals that include appreciating local culture, improving quality of life for
the populace, and promoting good governance whenever these concepts improve access
to the enemy. However, if the pursuit of them does not advance ones knowledge of threats
and a units capability to maintain the offensive, then they are of little practical value as
tactical or operational objectives. Destruction of the enemy force must remain the most
important step to defeating terrorists and insurgents. 71

This extract, written by US Army Col Harry Tunnell in 2005 (who incidentally lost more men
than any other US battalion in Afghanistan), goes entirely against the principles of
counterinsurgency that see the population, not the enemy, as the objective. At this time in
the campaign, this is how the campaign was being prosecuted by both British and
American forces; not in the crude body count sense a la Vietnam, but this culture was
pervading the Army at the time. One former British Army warrant officer said to the author:

...when 16 Bde arrived, they did not want to know about IEDs as they were boring and not
sexy, they wanted to 'Get in there and smash them up'. 72

Deliberate operations such as Operation Silver were conventional ground-taking assaults,


resourced with armour and adhering to the principles of the Manoeuvrist Approach. 73
71 Tunnell, H., in Chandrasekaran, R., Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, p.153 (Alfred
A Knopf, New York, 2012).
72 Transcribed passage from an email conversation with a former British Army WO1 (Squadron Sergeant
Major) Weapons Intelligence Specialist Warrant Officer.
73 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.375 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).

p.40 / 76

Heavy amounts of air power were used to compensate for low manpower. There is a
paradox that force multipliers do not compensate well for low troop levels in COIN, yet they
can be hugely effective psychological weapons. A show of force by a low-flying aircraft is
effective at scaring the enemy into retreat, or if required, a gun-run from an A-10 Warthog
(tank-buster). Interestingly, David Galula highlights the effectiveness of aircraft that bear
all the characteristics of the Warthog low and slow, heavily armoured and with heavy
firepower as ideal aircraft for COIN.74 The Warthog is viewed as particularly effective at
close air support as opposed to other platforms for precisely these reasons, decreasing
the risk of fratricide against friendly forces and psychologically devastating the opponent.
However, very few Warthogs have been available in Afghanistan and less desirable
platforms have often been used, ranging from Harrier GR-7 to the Rockwell B1-B Lancer, a
strategic bomber the latter arguably very unsuited to detailed integration with ground
forces (a key requirement of the close air support mission). 75 The point stands that ISAF
forces, and the British in particular, were keen to use their combined-arms way in warfare
to combat the insurgent threat.

So far, at this stage in the campaign, there was a significant lack of troops to successfully
prosecute the widening mission in Helmand at the start of 2006. This was also coupled
with a conventional war-fighting mindset that was not only inappropriate to the task at hand
supporting the reconstruction and development projects of the Provincial Reconstruction
Team but also served to alienate the local population by causing massive collateral
damage to both property and life. The situation would have been markedly different had
the platoon houses been (at a minimum) company-sized outposts but preferably larger

74 Galula, D., Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, p.65 (Westport, Praeger Security
International, 1964).
75 Joint Publication 3-09.3: Close Air Support (2009), I-1. Available online at:
http://fas.org/irp/doddir/dod/jp3_09_3.pdf [Accessed 24 August 2015.]

p.41 / 76

this would have at least provided an opportunity to conduct offensive operations and
engage with the local population. The answer would lie in training greater numbers of
Afghan troops to help deal with the problem, but this would be fraught with difficulties.

Problems with the Afghan National Security Forces


At this time, the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) were not in good shape. Riddled
with corruption, heavily infiltrated by Taliban fighters, poorly equipped, trained and led, the
ANSF were initially, simply put, a nightmare for British troops to work with. Simple things,
like firing weapons from the hip, poor ammunition conservation a complete absence of
tactical-level co-ordination or a willingness to generate serious cohesion at the higher
formation level were rampant in the ANSF. One problem that cannot be entirely resolved
is the complicated web of regional and tribal loyalties. These loyalties run deep in Afghan
culture, and there is a significantly higher adherence to tribes than there is to any idea of
the Afghan nation as a whole. This is an issue that ISAF forces are attempting to address,
particularly amongst officer cadets at the new Afghan National Army Officer Training
Academy. The cultural make-up of Afghanistan makes any nation-building strategy
extremely difficult to accomplish, and the right level of buy-in from the people is essential.

The British quite rightly recognised from the outset that the solution to the Afghan problem
lies within a stable, coherent and militarily effective indigenous force. From 2003 onwards,
the British were attempting to train junior non-commissioned officers and also to establish
an Afghan officer training academy designed around the Sandhurst model, with the aim of
improving the ANAs officer corps; the idea being that a good cadre, a well-trained cohort
of junior leaders would provide the foundation on which an effective army could be

p.42 / 76

constructed en masse.76 Yet within a counterinsurgency context, trying to train indigenous


forces to the same standard and in the same vein as that of the trainers is considered
something of an error, according to the eagerly anticipated counterinsurgency field
manual, FM 3-24, which was released in 2006. 77 According to the Field Manual,
counterinsurgents should train the indigenous security forces in a model that best fits the
local culture and ways of doing things. Again, the lack of understanding of Afghan culture
does not help British forces in this endeavour. Yet the academy, dubbed Sandhurst in the
sand eventually opened its doors in 2013.78 The extent to which the British-style training
will be able to overcome the problems associated with tribal loyalties remains to be seen,
but many commanders and diplomats do not hold much hope. Indeed, the British have
found working with their Afghan colleagues very frustrating at times, in terms of their
tactical proficiency and professional culture, with one officer describing them as inherently
idle.79 Particularly at this stage in the campaign they were held in contempt by the majority
of their foreign counterparts. Corruption was rife as was the case in the rest of Afghan
society, and the Afghan Uniformed Police in particular were universally loathed. Banditry
and extortion of local nationals at checkpoints were endemic along with hardcore drug
use.80 There was even a documented case of troops turning up for a range shoot with no
ammunition because they had sold it all at the market the previous day. 81 One commander,
in a subsequent tour, referred to the ANA in his book as 'ludicrous... as utterly dependent
on us for our booming air power as we were on them for the veneer of credibility and

76 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.347 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).
77 United States Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, p.202 [6-11] (Chicago, University of Chicago
Press, 2007).
78 Loyn, D., 'Afghan officer academy opens its doors'. BBC News, 27 October 2013. Available online at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24629331 [Accessed 08 July 2015].
79 On the frontline with British troops | Guardian Investigations. The Guardian (YouTube). Available online
at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGyMf4G6EAU [Accessed 16 August 2015].
80 Fergusson, J., A Million Bullets, p.115 (London, Transworld Publishers, 2008).
81 Fergusson, J., A Million Bullets, p.114 (London, Transworld Publishers, 2008).

p.43 / 76

slender exit strategy which sustained the whole mission'. 82

Crucially, the emphasis on fighting battles and demonstrating tactical and operational
proficiency at this time mattered much more than addressing the wider strategic issues of
why British troops were present in Helmand in the first place reasons which have never
been consistently articulated. The failing of the Manoeuvrist Approach had been exposed
although this is slightly unfair as there were never sufficient troops deployed to make a
realistic, manoeuvre-focused approach in the first place. Nevertheless, a rigidly battlefocused, conventionally-orientated mindset was firmly in the minds of 16 Air Assault
Brigade when they deployed, and it was not successful in bringing the population on-side.

Key points:
There was a widespread sense of ignorance and complacency about counterinsurgency at
all ranks in the British armed forces, with Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Northern Ireland
being cited as examples of how the British knew all about COIN, which did not endear
British officers to their international allies, especially when there was little evidence of
operational or strategic success. The prolific use of heavy firepower and conventionallyorientated battle group offensive operations conducted in order to clear areas of insurgents
achieved very little in providing sustainable security, as cleared ground was not
subsequently held and the insurgents were able to re-infiltrate very quickly, exacting
revenge on anyone who co-operated with British forces. The phrase mowing the lawn
was very apt for describing the British approach at this time, and the separation of
insurgent from population was most definitely not achieved. 83 Ignorance of Afghan culture,
82 Hennessey, P., The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, p. 259 (London,
Penguin, 2010).
83 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.93 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).

p.44 / 76

language, social customs etc. only compounded these effects, particularly when
attempting to train Afghan troops. Aside from these issues, the problems of rampant
banditry and drug abuse did little to endear the Afghans to their foreign counterparts.
Attempting to train Afghan forces in a mirror image to that of the British was fraught with
difficulties, and is something that FM 3-24 explicitly warns against. It would not be until at
least 2008 that British security policy would change, and from this, the operational
approach.

**

p.45 / 76

Chapter 5: Clear, hold, build: the revival of COIN,


changes in tactics and the arrival of the US Marine
Corps in Helmand, 2009-2014

The campaign started to seek some sort of new direction around the start of 2009. More
commanders, both American and British, seemed to finally start to understand populationcentric counterinsurgency. This was evident amongst changing tactics and revised rules of
engagement (ROE). The new ROE policy came under a concept called courageous
restraint, which in essence was to absolutely minimise the use of force that ISAF troops
could deploy, in an effort to reduce civilian deaths and win their loyalty. This meant a very
tight restriction on use of indirect fire and close air support, and even so much as to restrict
the use of personal weapons even for returning fire against small arms attack; unless a
firing point could be positively identified, no discharge of ISAF small arms would be
permitted.84 This was not popular amongst the troops, who felt they were being needlessly
exposed to greater risks, and this filtered back to the public who by and large didn't seem
to understand it either.85 Nevertheless, this policy did much to reduce instances of civilian
casualties caused by ISAF forces and may have gone a significant way to bringing the
civilian population on-side. Crucially, this change of direction came about under the new
operational command of US General Stanley McChrystal, who was to pioneer a largescale revival of COIN, along with General David Petraeus, the architect of the surge in Iraq
in 2007.86 Lt Col John Nagl (also US Army) would also prove to be a significant force
84 Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan
p.122 (London, Quercus, 2011).
85 Harding, D., ''Courageous restraint' putting troops lives at risk'. The Telegraph, 06 July 2010. Available
online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/7874950/Courageous-restraintputting-troops-lives-at-risk.html [Accessed 01 August 2015.]
86 Bergen, P., 'How Petraeus changed the U.S. military'. CNN, 11 November 2012. Available online at:
http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/10/opinion/bergen-petraeus-legacy/ [Accessed 01 August 2015].

p.46 / 76

amongst a new generation of COIN advocates. These principles, outlined in the US FM 324 which had been so eagerly anticipated before its release in 2006 would form the
basis through which a whole new operational emphasis would be directed in Afghanistan.
Sadly, this was not to prove an effective substitute for the strategic void that operational
commanders found themselves in.

A dearth of campaign planning


A damning report in The Guardian on 30 March 2009 suggested that there was still a
sense of frustration amongst senior commanders who still felt like they had not received
adequate guidance on how they should conduct the campaign. Brigadier Andrew Mackay
spoke of a sense of making it up as we go along, and Sherard Cowper-Coles, the UK's
ambassador to Kabul, stated There was still sort of a hangover of misplaced optimism. 87
Morale was getting low amongst the mid- and higher-level leadership, who complained
bitterly in public about how troops were under-resourced. 88 The thorny issue of helicopters
emerged time and again; this was particularly significant as improvised explosive devices
were taking a heavy toll on re-supply convoys so vital to the sustainment of the various
isolated patrol bases and combat outposts scattered throughout Helmand. Casualty
figures were rising and the parliamentary debate raged furiously after bitter complaints
from Army leaders, such as Brigadier Ed Butler, that there were too few helicopters
available.89 This is more of an operational concern, but ties in with a failure to appreciate
at the strategic level the resources required. Hew Strachan levels the failure to
87 Norton-Taylor, R., 'Afghanistan: soldiers' reports tell of undue optimism, chaos, and policy made on the
hoof'. The Guardian, 30 March 2011. Available online at:
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/mar/30/afghanistan-military-chaos-operation-snakebite [Accessed
19 July 2015.]
88 'British Army chief: Afghanistan war under-resourced for years'. The Telegraph, 10 January 2010.
Available online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/6961674/British-Army-chiefAfghanistan-war-under-resourced-for-years.html [Accessed 20 July 2015.]
89 Operations in Afghanistan: Fourth Report of Session 2010-12 (House of Commons Defence Committee, 6
July 2011), p.23. Available online at:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmdfence/554/554.pdf [Accessed 22 July
2015.]

p.47 / 76

appreciate strategy at the start of the Afghanistan campaign, and also for Iraq, as much at
the general as he does the politicians. While he is complimentary about the AngloAmerican ability to excel at the operational level of war, it does not fill a strategic void. 90
Strategy is defined by Clausewitz as the use of the engagement for the purpose of the
war.91 It is the link between the operational designs of the armed forces and the policy
goals of the government.92 The implication is that policymakers did not offer operational
commanders sufficient guidance on how best to achieve the desired political effects and
policymakers would be kept continually confused as to what those effects were by the
constantly changing political narrative throughout the campaign. 93 Additionally, there were
issues at the level of operational command. We have already addressed the six-monthtour problem to some degree in Chapter 2, and this was equally true for commanders.
Each commander would rotate in every six months, mount a signature kinetic operation,
and leave. This did not impress the Americans, who did a minimum of 12 months in each
post; in Iraq at the height of the surge, 15-month tours had been introduced. 94 Critically,
however, was the global financial crisis of 2008. One officer I spoke to said that since then,
the entire strategic focus of Britain changed, as national security became all about money.
The UK needed to hand over responsibility to the Afghan people so that both countries
could take care of their own issues.95 In light of this, a war-fighting approach was less
viable operationally, as it could not be sustained without massive financial costs. The
90 Strachan, H., The Lost Meaning Of Strategy, p.51 (Taylor and Francis, 2006.) Available online at:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00396330500248102 [Accessed 19 July 2015].
91 Clausewitz, in Simpson, E., War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics, p.118
(Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?
id=vodoAgAAQBAJ [Accessed 18 July 2015].
92 Strachan, H., The Lost Meaning Of Strategy, p.52 (Taylor and Francis, 2006.) Available online at:
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00396330500248102 [Accessed 19 July 2015].
93 Holloway, A., The failure of British political and military leadership in Iraq. Available online at:
http://www.defenceviewpoints.co.uk/articles-and-analysis/the-failure-of-british-political-and-militaryleadership-in-iraq [Accessed 22 July 2015].
94 Belasco, A., Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other potential
Issues., p.2 (Congressional Research Service, 2 July 2009). Available online at:
https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R40682.pdf [Accessed 25 July 2015].
95 Extract from a recorded interview with a senior British officer (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom,
Shrivenham, 2 September 2015).

p.48 / 76

operational approach had to change.

Changing insurgent tactics and the British response


What was also clear that by this stage in the campaign, the insurgents had successfully
adapted many of their tactics and were able to inflict ever-greater losses on British troops.
They had learned their lessons from the previous three years; engaging British bases in
running gun battles and seeking to fight with relatively light weapons was counterproductive. Their emphasis switched to improvised explosive devices; particularly ones
with a low metal content. This meant that the relatively new counter-IED pieces such as
VALLON would not detect such devices.96 The British adapted in turn and brought out a
plethora of new counter-IED tools such as a ground-penetrating radar, which went a long
way to mitigating this problem, but the IED has a much greater effect beyond just simply
killing and wounding. It is a distinctly psychological weapon young British soldiers were
reportedly vomiting in fear frequently before patrols 97 and it drastically reduces freedom
of action, by forcing troops to remain within safe lanes, even while under fire especially
when under fire and slows down the rate of advance, as troops have to be meticulous in
their sweeps with counter-IED devices. This prevents classic manoeuvre tactics such as
flanking and assaulting, as very often, the insurgents would lay IEDs and mines along the
most likely approach routes and often withdraw at the first sign of British troops closing
with their positions. The British tactics then switched, and new equipment was designed
and rushed into service under the Urgent Operational Requirement programme (UOR).
This included enhanced body armour and pelvic protection, electronic countermeasures

96 Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan
p.250 (London, Quercus, 2011).
97 Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan
p.xxvii (London, Quercus, 2011).

p.49 / 76

(ECM) to jam radio-controlled IEDs, new vehicles and a new individual weapon. 98 Force
protection was the order of the day and while this reduced casualties and reduced the ratio
of deaths against injuries, it gave the insurgency a much greater freedom of manoeuvre.
This is a classic example of a weaker force changing its tactics to achieve military parity
with a stronger opponent by asymmetric means. Very often, IEDs would be covered by
ambush, which could inflict even more casualties. Morale was being sapped, not only
amongst British forces but also amongst international allies. Come fight us with rifles, so
we can give back in kind, was a sentiment echoed by Danish troops who were also facing
the same problem.99 This would appear to suggest that the British Armys much-vaunted
Manoeuvrist Approach had failed, and is not appropriate to a dismounted, patrol-focused
environment saturated with IEDs. Force protection was the only substitute to compensate
for the manpower shortage, and the shortcomings of force-multipliers had been exposed
during 2006-2009.

Clear-hold-build
It was in 2010 that General McChrystal thought he would achieve a significant
breakthrough with a new operational concept, called clear-hold-build. (This is actually a
revival of Malayan-era counterinsurgency thinking, ironically pioneered by the British.) An
offensive into Marjah, to be led by the US Marine Corps, was promised, with McChrystal
declaring, We've got a government in a box, ready to roll in. 100 By this, he meant that he
had the new civilian leadership, who he had been working closely with to foster good
relationships, were ready to assume responsibility for Marjah once it had been cleared of
98 'Royal Marines are first to use new Sharpshooter rifle in Helmand.' Ministry of Defence, 7 June 2010.
Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/royal-marines-are-first-to-use-newsharpshooter-rifle-in-helmand [Accessed 14 August 2015].
99 Metziker, 'My War 2/4 Danish Afghanistan Documentary (English Subtitles)', YouTube, 2 Nov 2014.
Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7I9XGBFSt4 [Accessed 05 August 2015.]
100Bacevich, A., ''Government in a box' in Marja' Los Angeles Times, 17 February 2010. Available online at:
http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/17/opinion/la-oe-bacevich17-2010feb17 [Accessed 12 July 2015.]

p.50 / 76

insurgents the first phase in clear-hold-build. This principle is relatively self-explanatory.


The first phase, CLEAR, relies on a military effort to establish immediate security in a
given area by capturing, killing or driving insurgents away from a centre of population. The
second phase, HOLD, requires the military and / or other, indigenous security forces to
allow the new local government to establish legitimacy amongst the local population and
prevent the insurgent forces from being able to come back and topple it, either through
political destabilisation or military attack, or a combination thereof. The third phase,
BUILD, encompasses all the means by which that new local government builds and
retains its support from the local population through reconstruction projects, the return to
primacy of the host-nation security forces so that the job of population protection can be
self-sustaining.101 This increases both the legitimacy of the external counterinsurgent
forces as they are seen to be less as occupiers and frees them up for other operations
elsewhere, and it also increases the legitimacy of the host-nation security forces as they
establish their mutual trust with the population. The best example of clear-hold-build being
used effectively for the first time came during Operation TOR SHPAH (Dark Night in
Pashto), the shaping operation for MOSHTARAK; the joint effort to pacify the town of
Marjah, and was the first substantial British COIN success in Afghanistan. 102

It was clear from relatively early on that the concept, while sound in principle, failed to
achieve decisive success in Marjah for several reasons. Firstly, there were not enough
troops available to both hold the ground taken and aggressively patrol into outlying areas
to keep the insurgents back and away from the local population. This requirement is even
advocated by Douglas Porch, who is not known for being a supporter of modern COIN

101Ahern, C., Clear, Hold, Build: Modern Political Techniques in COIN, p.3 (2008). Available online at:
www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA495007 [Accessed 28 May 2015.]
102 Anderson, D., in Fremont-Barnes, G., A History of Counterinsurgency: From Cyprus to Afghanistan, 1955
to the 21st Century, p.401 (California, Praeger Security International, 2015).

p.51 / 76

tactics.103 This has been correlated with the absence of local officials from their jobs,
hampering their ability to establish legitimacy with the local population. For example, only
eight out of 81 teachers were regularly turning up to their schools to work, and only 350
out of an estimated 10,000 students were coming to school. This is supported by the fact
that Taliban fighters were returning during the night to threaten and kill the locals who cooperated with US forces.104 The troops said it was taking too long to get to the
counterinsurgency bit... the whole focus-on-the-locals thing. 105 They were too preoccupied
with fighting the insurgents on a daily basis, that there simply were no resources to devote
to reconstruction nor the time and security available for it to take place. Additionally, a
prominent local warlord had been running the town, and the people believed the
Americans were going to reinstate him and support him, making them less willing to
support the occupying US forces.106 However, despite some of the qualitative advantages
that British forces possessed107 the US Marines were more operationally successful than
the British by virtue of resources, particularly in protected mobility and air, and the Welsh
Guards were astounded at the level of resources they had available, with 15,000 troops. 108

Perhaps the critical lesson here is not that the idea of clear-hold-build does not work, but
perhaps that more time needs to be spent on the clear phase, to ensure that security is
firmly established and that there are enough troops within the area to be able to guarantee
protection, as well as aggressive patrolling into outlying areas to deny the insurgents the
103 Porch, D., Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War, p.221 (Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2013).
104 'Marjah's 'government in a box' flops as McChrystal fumes'. Wired, 25 May 2010. Available online at:
http://www.wired.com/2010/05/marjahs-government-in-a-box-flops-as-mcchrystal-fumes/ [Accessed 26
July 2015].
105 'Firepower trumps 'soft power' in this Afghan town'. Wired, 09 September 2009. Available online at:
http://www.wired.com/2009/09/tweets-are-comi-2/ [Accessed 26 July 2015].
106 Extract from a recorded interview with Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, Head of the Department for War
Studies, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 10 September 2015).
107 Anderson, D., in Fremont-Barnes, G., A History of Counterinsurgency: From Cyprus to Afghanistan, 1955
to the 21st Century, p.405 (California, Praeger Security International, 2015).
108 Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in
Afghanistan, p.142 (London, Quercus, 2011).

p.52 / 76

chance to regroup and rearm. The key element in the equation here is manpower,
something that has been sorely lacking throughout the entire campaign. Critically, it is also
an issue of strategic mobility that affects the ability of the counterinsurgent forces to react
to an insurgent uprising in a given area. Given the high IED threat and relatively low antiair threat from the Taliban, the ideal solution would surely be to make more support
helicopters available. A mobile reaction force to counter quick attacks from insurgents
would be critical to denying the insurgents their freedom of action, but this does not offset
the need to have sufficient forces in place to dominate ground. In counterinsurgency, the
counterinsurgent forces must be able to recognise the changes in local dynamics, to
recognise unusual signs that might suggest insurgent influence or presence. Troops need
to be in an area for a long time to truly understand what constitutes a normal pattern of life
for that given area. For instance, it is not possible to relocate troops from Gereshk to
Sangin and expect them to be able to spot changes in the local atmospherics without
having been in the area for at least three months. On the six-month-tour cycle, and with
the maximum number of troops that have been available in Afghanistan (just shy of 10,000
UK troops for an area half the size of England 109), this has not ever been a realistic
proposition. The resulting over-reliance on force multipliers will only set back a campaign
where to use more force is to make it less effective. Civilian casualties will not endear an
army to the indigenous population, and this is a piece of knowledge that the US has had in
its intellectual arsenal since the Vietnam War, on the subject of harassment and
interdiction artillery fire:

In its August 1962 Lessons Learned Number 20, the army section of the Military
Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) emphasized that All forms of firepower, from the
109 Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The Falklands to
Afghanistan, p.352 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).

p.53 / 76

carbine to the 500 pound bomb, must have positively identified VC targets to be effective
in CI [Counter Insurgency] operations. The indiscriminate use of firepower, regardless of
caliber, type or means of delivery cannot be condoned in CI operations. Indeed, it
continued, Since the VC have no rear areas, no logistic bases and no staging or
cantonment areas in the generally accepted conventional sense, the application of
firepower on a suspected VC area to destroy VC combat potential is of little value. In a
frontless war, Unless targets are completely identified as enemy or completely clear of
noncombatants, casualties among the people, rather than the VC, will result. 110

This only serves to illustrate that armies, time and again, fight similar campaigns and make
the same mistakes, only to re-learn the same lessons. Militaries are guilty of this
throughout history, and it is unlikely that this will change significantly in the future. A greater
emphasis on professional military education rather than training may go some way to
mitigating this effect, but it will be extremely difficult to change the basic culture and
philosophy of a conventional army designed first and foremost to fight conventional war.

Key points
The rising IED threat was causing ever-greater casualties amongst British forces and was
seriously sapping morale. The response to this was a shift from reliance on force
multipliers to force protection. The failure of the international coalition to conduct thorough
campaign planning was starting to unravel and be noticed by the general public. The
manpower shortage, which had been present since the start of HERRICK 4, coupled with
a lack of tactical mobility for troops, was still present. A debate about the lack of helicopters
made the national press and was hotly debated in the House of Commons. Tactical
110Hawkins, J., The Costs of Artillery: Eliminating Harassment and Interdiction Fire During the Vietnam War,
p.62 (The Journal Of Military History, 2006). Available online at:
https://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_military_history/v070/70.1hawkins.pdf [Accessed 15 July 2015.]

p.54 / 76

mobility is critical to suppressing local insurgent outbreaks as it was (is) impossible to have
sufficient manpower everywhere to guarantee security. New doctrine, pioneered by a new
generation of COIN advocates, particularly the General Stanley McChrystal and his
concept of courageous restraint, was starting to be noticed and copied by the British
Army, with some success. Critically, the further development of the Afghan National
Security Forces would allow ISAF to shift combat operations over to local forces by 2014,
who vastly outnumber the troops provided by ISAF. 111

**

111 London Conference on Afghanistan 2014, The UKs work in Afghanistan. (London, Ministry of Defence,
14 January 2014.) Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uks-work-inafghanistan/the-uks-work-in-afghanistan [Accessed 14 September 2015].

p.55 / 76

Chapter 6: Fight smarter, not harder: the future for


COIN, 2014+

Summary of the campaign


The period from 2006 2009 were spent re-learning the fundamental lessons of
counterinsurgency while the British Army grappled with a different kind of war from the one
it was structured for and the one it was expecting to fight. During this period, despite
efforts to the contrary, little strategic emphasis was placed on the reconstruction elements
and civilian enterprises that should form part of the comprehensive approach, and these
years were dominated by a decidedly conventional approach to fighting. This is evidenced
by almost every operational tours emphasis on a signature kinetic operation. 112
Nevertheless, over time, equipment and doctrine underwent heavy modification, largely in
rise to the changing tactics of the insurgency and their move away from heavy
conventional engagements towards the use of improvised explosive devices. The years
2010-2014 were spent applying the lessons learned, with varying degrees of success.
Throughout the entire campaign, UK forces were held back by a lack of a coherent
strategy and too few combat troops were available to accomplish it. 113 Too much time has
to be spent mowing the lawn, and holding and building could not take place. The centres
of population were cleared and held at given times, but this was insufficient to guarantee
the right level of security required to build as the insurgents were able to launch attacks
from the edges and fields insufficient troops were available to push out beyond the
centre. Perhaps after realising this, the British have withdrawn from their combat mission

112Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in Afghanistan,
p.545 (London, Quercus, 2011).
113 Extract from a recorded interview with Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, Head of the Department for War
Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 10 September 2015).

p.56 / 76

in Helmand and are focussing on training the Afghan National Army and providing force
protection in Kabul. Local forces need to solve a local problem in the long-term, as
external counterinsurgent forces cannot remain there indefinitely. Yet the British Army now
runs the risk of forgetting the hard-won lessons of how to fight counterinsurgency as it reorientates largely towards conventional war-fighting under the return to contingency.
Training emphases have now switched from the less glamorous world of COIN back to the
sexier field of conventional-warfighting. It is a matter of contention as to whether armies
can ever be professionally inclined towards the subtle art of counterinsurgency while at the
same time being ready for conventional war-fighting. 114

The future for Afghanistan


NATO support continues to the country in the form of NATO mission RESOLUTE
SUPPORT.115 Under the British component of that mission, Operation HERRICK has now
ended and has been replaced by Operation TORAL. This sees a continued military
advisory training team and force protection elements deployed to Kabul to oversee the
continued progress of the ANA officer training academy and security within Kabul. NATO
forces are no longer conducting offensive operations; ANSF have now assumed full
responsibility for planning and executing them. It is interesting to note, however, that 20142015 has so far been a record year in terms of ANSF casualties. 116 What is perhaps most
telling is not so much the lack of firepower made available to the ANSF that would have
otherwise been available with the historically heavy fire support made available by ISAF,
but the lack of speedy aeromedical evacuation that became standard procedure for ISAF
114 Popov, M., 'COIN or conventional? Resolving the Small Army Conundrum'. Canadian Army Journal, 14
March 2012. Available online at: http://www.armyarmee.forces.gc.ca/assets/ARMY_Internet/docs/en/canadian-army-journal/volume14/CAJ_Vol14.3_11_e.pdf [Accessed 28 July 2015.]
115'Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan.' NATO, 27 February 2015. Available online at:
http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_113694.htm [Accessed 18 July 2015.]
116 Gad, F-S, 'Afghan Forces are Suffering Record Losses'. The Diplomat, 05 May 2015.Available online at:
http://thediplomat.com/2015/05/afghan-forces-are-suffering-record-losses/ [Accessed 20 July 2015.]

p.57 / 76

forces at the height of the HERRICK campaign. On average it took twenty minutes from
the point of injury to being picked up by the MERT (Medical Evacuation Response Team)
which is effectively an air-mobile operating theatre and returning to Camp Bastion which
has arguably been the forefront of the most advanced trauma care in the world. This
resource is no longer available, and above all else this may be a decisive factor in death
rates and battlefield medicine as a whole. In the bloodiest year of the campaign (from
2009-2010; see Appendix 1), over 25% of very seriously injured troops were noted as
unexpected survivors, i.e. those who would have otherwise died. 117 Absence of
outstanding medical care may have a serious effect on force sustainability for the ANSF,
although they are considerably more numerous than ISAF.

On the operational level, it would be a damning indictment of the British Army to suggest
that it has not understood the importance of development work, reconstruction, and other
activities that engage with the local population in order to turn them away from the
insurgents. This would be unfair, as reconstruction work has been, to some degree, a part
of the military effort in Afghanistan since at least 2007. The Royal Anglian Battle Group
highlighted the attempts it made to engage with civic development and reconstruction
projects in its after-action review upon returning home before the wholesale conceptual
revival of COIN in the British Army. 118 Even since the start of Operation HERRICK 4 in
2006, it was intended that the comprehensive approach would be used to fight the
insurgency. Yet while some effort was made, the operational focus was on conventional
fighting; more time and energy was spent thinking about the enemy than about the
population, at least until about 2009. Dr Duncan Anderson, a witness to the tour, agrees:
117 House of Commons Defence Committee: 'The Arned Forces Covenant in Action? Part 1: Military
Casualties, Seventh Report of Session 2010-12', p.217 (London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 2011).
Available online at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmdfence/762/762.pdf
[Accessed 08 July 2015].
118 Kemp, R., Hughes, C., Attack State Red, p.402 (London, Penguin, 2009).

p.58 / 76

Cest magnifique, mais ce nest pas la COIN, yet he maintains that the British Army had
the requisite knowledge for COIN; it was merely that it was not sufficiently resourced. 119 It
is fair to say that the prevailing military culture conditions both officers and soldiers to think
about all forms of warfare, fundamentally, from the conventional, manoeuvrist perspective.
This is starting to change; one officer the author spoke to believes that the Armys
intellectual approach is changing and the transition to COIN-centred doctrine, in the near
term, has been successful.120 It is true that the security situation in Afghanistan has largely
improved in many areas, and this can be largely attributed to greater numbers of better
equipped and trained troops in the ANSF. The massively decreased level of violence
between 1 Royal Anglians tours of the same areas in 2012 as opposed to 2007 is one
example, where extra manpower allowed for greater ground domination. 121

The need for adaptability in COIN


Counterinsurgency requires a certain level of skill, subtlety and finesse to implement
effectively at the tactical level. It also makes different demands of officers from what they
might have to think about in a conventional war, and finally it requires sustained political
will and a substantial allocation of resources over a long period of time. It requires a
certain philosophy and cultural mindset that was certainly not present in either the UKs or
indeed the US armed forces at the start of the campaign, leading to the latters
introduction of FM 3-24.122 Whether the right philosophy is indeed present in those
respective armies today is still debatable, but what is remarkable is the speed at which the
US armed forces adapted to the new challenges of this kind of warfare, and this was
119 Extract from a recorded interview with Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, Head of the Department for War
Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 10 September 2015).
120 Extract from a recorded interview with a senior British officer (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom,
Shrivenham, 2 September 2015).
121 Anderson, D., in Fremont-Barnes, G., A History of Counterinsurgency: From Cyprus to Afghanistan, 1955
to the 21st Century, p.400 (California, Praeger Security International, 2015).
122 Nagl, J., in United States Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency: Foreword to the University of Chicago
Press Edition, p.xiv (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007).

p.59 / 76

helped in a big way by the cultural readiness of their armed services and the willingness of
their senior commanders to learn from their mistakes and change their doctrine. This was
sparked by concurrent operations in Iraq, leading to the much-vaunted surge in 2007.
The British have been far slower on the uptake, and this can be attributed in part to the
British Army's insular, traditional approach and its tendency to cite historical examples of
supposed success as if they were evidence of contemporary ability or practice. 123 Yet new
tactics began to enter British doctrine, such as courageous restraint, under the operational
command of General Stanley McChrystal. 124 Although heavily lampooned in the popular
press and by soldiers who did not entirely understand its implications 125, it is now widely
accepted that in counterinsurgency, force becomes less effective the more that it is used. It
must be restrained, in an environment where consent is everything. As the indigenous
force, the ANSF do not have this problem.

FM 3-24 was released by the Americans in 2006, yet its principles were only beginning to
be adopted by the British in 2009 through to 2014 five years is not considered enough
time to wage and conclude an effective COIN campaign, especially when compared
against the likes of Northern Ireland. More time and effort would have been required to see
it pay off. For Northern Ireland, it was significantly easier to deploy and sustain more
troops for longer periods, due to its significantly reduced distance from the mainland UK;
troops would usually stay for two years supported by others on six-month rotations. 126
Manpower for the British Army in Helmand was a perennial issue; there simply were not
enough troops to control the given amount of territory and were constantly engaged in a
123 Ledwidge, F., Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, p.150 (London, Yale
University Press, 2011).
124 Harnden, T., Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and The Defining Story of Britain's War in
Afghanistan, p.459 (London, Quercus, 2011).
125 Harding, T., 'Courageous restraint putting troops lives at risk', The Telegraph, 06 July 2010. Available
online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/7874950/Courageous-restraintputting-troops-lives-at-risk.html [Accessed 08 August 2015].
126 Dingley, J., Combating Terrorism in Northern Ireland, p.207 (Oxford, Routledge, 2009).

p.60 / 76

brutal game of whack-a-mole. Some might suggest that population-centric


counterinsurgency is a failed concept; a modern revival of colonialist warfare practices full
of racist platitudes and barbaric tactics.127 Others such as Frank Ledwidge and Hew
Strachan believe that the failure to implement and communicate the right strategy both to
commanders at all levels and to the public went a serious way towards undermining public
opinion, handing the insurgents a goal to aim for and an expectation for withdrawal from
the British public. Again, others such as Dr Duncan Anderson consider it simply a question
of resources; that there were simply too few troops available from any ISAF countries to be
able to dominate the ground adequately that would provide the minimum level of security
required to hold and build.128 The caveats behind which many countries sheltered their
troops did little to assist in this mission.129 Quite simply, there was not enough continuity of
presence., caused in part by too few troops having to rotate in and out too quickly.

The future for COIN


Future COIN will require better over-arching strategy to guide it. Although success in COIN
is much harder to define than in conventional war-fighting, a clear, measurable desired
end-state must be given to commanders from the outset, rather than a vague idea of
inkspots spreading out across a map over time. Instances such as, Go and have an effect
in Musa Qala are not sufficient.130 Advocates of Mission Command should know that
decentralised command and control is not an excuse for woolly thought, nor is it a reason
to give subordinates inadequate orders. 131 More explicit mission effects will tie concurrent
127 Porch, D., Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War, p.50 (Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 2013).
128 From a recorded interview with Dr Duncan Anderson MA MBE, Head of the Department for War Studies
at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, 10 September 2015).
129 Rennie, D., 'Nato nations refuse to commit more troops'. The Telegraph,14 September 2006 Available
online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1528853/Nato-nations-refuse-to-commit-moretroops.html [Accessed 12 August 2015.]
130 Unnamed officer in Fergusson, J., A Million Bullets, p.326 (London, Transworld Publishers, 2008).
131 Riley, J., in Connaughton, R., A Brief History of Modern Warfare: The True Story of Conflict from The
Falklands to Afghanistan, p.248 (London, Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2008).

p.61 / 76

operations together and go some way towards mitigating the six-month-tour syndrome that
has been blamed for a significant amount of the strategic atrophy that General James
Mattis has highlighted.132 He was referring to an American problem, but the British are
caught up in it, as British foreign policy of the last decade has been about little more than
preserving the special relationship. Strategic issues aside, the British Army is re-appraising
its operational approach and its view of other forms of conflict. There is a lot of navelgazing occurring intellectually, with a new focus on 'hybridity'. This term encompasses
both COIN and other forms of asymmetric warfare:

There are certainly no straightforward successes in Afghanistan[...] but we can argue that
there is an emerging strategic success story coming out from Afghanistan... including
modernising our intellectual approach. 133

This new intellectual approach must be sustained if the British Army hopes to learn and
retain its lessons for fighting alternative forms of conflict, and it will take time to permeate
the wider force. But it suggests that it may be starting to move away from the Manoeuvrist
Approach, and to take a more measured approach to future hybrid campaigns. In some
ways, the Afghanistan campaign has been good for the British Army and has brought it into
the 21st century, but it must reinforce its tactical and operational changes with a greater
strategic vision.
**

132 Ernst, D., 'Marine Gen. James Mattis' assessment of Obama: U.S. Suffering 'strategic atrophy'' The
Washington Times, 15 May 2015. Available online at:
http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/may/15/james-mattis-us-suffering-strategic-atrophy-says-w/
[Accessed 13 June 2015.]
133 Extract from a recorded interview with a senior British officer (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom,
Shrivenham, 2 September 2015.)

p.62 / 76

Conclusion
Although the British Army has (on the whole) successfully adapted operationally, the
Afghanistan conflict has been characterised by deeply flawed campaign planning. The
failure of the Manoeuvrist Approach in COIN has been exposed, and the British Army has
been forced to rediscover and update its COIN principles. This has been encouraged by
parallel American development and is evidenced in various in-house publications and
doctrine notes. Yet its approach to warfare is still firmly rooted in conventional war-fighting
and this reflects the institutional preference for the British way in warfare. On the one hand
this is natural for a conventional army, and the return to contingency and the re-balancing
of forces for what may come next in war illustrates this. It is not necessarily a bad thing,
but the key lesson is that the COIN skill-set must be maintained. Failure in Afghanistan
came about through not embracing and implementing the principles of COIN early enough,
but also, the British Army was not resourced adequately, nor was the strategic narrative
strong enough to make for a coherent campaign. It learned in the early years of Operation
HERRICK that the Manoeuvrist Approach and over-reliance on force multipliers does not
make for a successful COIN campaign, and specialist doctrine had to be revived, revised
and implemented. By 2010, COIN principles had re-established themselves in the UKs
operational approach, but resources (and critically, manpower) were still insufficient.

With regards to future campaigns, the return to contingency operations and the rebalancing of UK forces for whatever may come next be it humanitarian assistance,
peace support operations or indeed high intensity war-fighting is a perfectly sensible
policy in response to the changing character of war. It is impossible to accurately predict
what the next war will be like, but the experience of the last fifteen years or so tells us that
future campaigns are likely to be asymmetric in nature. The point is that the British Army
p.63 / 76

must be ready for anything, but it must be careful not to lose its hard-won experience of
Afghanistan and get caught up in a similar conflict in the future, only to have to re-learn its
vital COIN lessons yet again. For soldiers and officers, being told to forget about
Afghanistan will only make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. 134 Although the fashionable
emerging threat is that of a conventional war with Russia, hybridity is something the
British Army needs to remain prepared for, as the vast majority of potential opponents will
still lack the capability to fight NATO and its allies conventionally in the near future. 135 Most
importantly of all, the onus is on the British government to implement a clear strategy for
where it chooses to deploy its armed forces. That begins with adhering to the Principles of
War, namely the selection and maintenance of the aim to which all other efforts are
subordinate.136 Clausewitz still has relevance, even for hybrid warfare.

The British Army has taken lessons from Afghanistan to heart and is actively taking steps
to implement them. For instance, cultural awareness and languages are now more highly
valued in career terms, and language proficiencies are becoming requirements for
promotion in some cases. Academic study is also gaining favour; taking over battalion
command will require successful completion of a Masters degree by 2018. 137 Nearly three
years ago, the British Army ran its first iteration of Exercise URBAN WARRIOR in which
the author was a participant arguably one of the most complex urban warfare exercises
ever conducted, with a plethora of combined-arms assets and the full spectrum of potential

134 From the authors own experience on a training exercise in October 2013.
135 Pifer, S., 'NATO's deterrence challenge is conventional, not nuclear'. International Institute for Strategic
Studies, 7 April 2015. Available online at: https://www.iiss.org/en/politics%20and
%20strategy/blogsections/2015-932e/april-ea11/natos-deterrence-challenge-is-conventional-not-nucleara56d [Accessed 19 August 2015.]
136 Joint Doctrine Publication 0-01: UK Defence Doctrine (Fifth Edition), p.30 (Ministry of Defence, London,
2014). Available online at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/389755/20141208JDP_0_01_Ed_5_UK_Defence_Doctrine.pdf [Accessed 04 July 2015.]
137 Extract from a recorded interview with a senior British officer (Defence Academy of the United Kingdom,
Shrivenham, 2 September 2015).

p.64 / 76

opponents, from simulated regular armed forces to insurgent / militia groups. 138 On the one
hand, it suggests that the British Army is learning how to adapt to a new age of warfare
and is seeking a broader range of skills from its leaders. It knows how to conduct COIN
operationally, evidenced in new doctrine and the eventual arrival of the right equipment.
But being able to fight major war well does not by itself allow an army to step down to
COIN; it is a specialist field requiring a completely different cultural and philosophical
approach to human conflict. The new intellectual approach that the officer I spoke to at
Shrivenham describes in an earlier passage is essential for this. Critically, as insurgency /
hybridity is a method that future opponents of Western armies are still likely to use as a
viable alternative to conventional war-fighting, the institutional knowledge of how to
conduct COIN / hybrid operations must not be allowed to disappear. 139 Finally, the strategic
shortcomings of the political leadership must be resolved. Campaigns should not be
launched without a coherent narrative and clearly defined political end-state, and the
British Army needs to remember that it cannot punch above its weight indefinitely; thus its
leaders must be honest about what it can and cannot do with its available resources and
troop numbers.

Professionals talk command and control, followed by logistics, followed by tactics. 140

*****

138 'New warfare skills give troops the edge', YouTube, 7 January 2013. Available online at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cBhwkIfwSg [Accessed 20 August 2015].
139 Jackson, B., Counterinsurgency Intelligence in a Long War: The British Experience in Northern Ireland,
p.74 (RAND, 2007). Available online at:
http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reprints/2007/RAND_RP1247.pdf [Accessed 12 August
2015.]
140 Richards, D., in Lindley-French, J., Boyer, Y., The Oxford Handbook of War, p.356 (Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 2012). Available online at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=eULQHEqJC3YC
[Accessed 21 September 2015].

p.65 / 76

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Declaration
All of the preceding work is my own, except where cited. All stated opinions are either my
own or those of the respective individuals quoted, and do not necessarily reflect the official
position of the Government of the United Kingdom, the Ministry of Defence, or the British
Army.

No information is Protectively Marked; it is all available for public release.

I have adhered to all of the rules laid down by Aberystwyth University with regard to
academic practice and plagiarism. Audio data and transcripts of the recorded interviews
can be obtained on request.

Included in formal word count:


Preface to conclusion: 15,000 words

Excluded from word count:


Bibliography: 2,000 words
Appendices, acknowledgements and contents: 2,000 words
Footnotes: 3,000 words

***
Lucas Colley
25 September 2015

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